Conservation doesn't always mean conflict
Environment: We should be celebrating our natural diversity
Maybe it's my imagination but the country seems to be buzzing with organised cycles this year. The majority are sponsored cycles to raise badly needed funds for a range of good causes, others are about personal exploration. However, one that piqued my interest from an agri-journalism point of view is being undertaken in August aims to raise awareness about conservation.
Whoa, don't skip on just yet! I know the usual response to the mention of conservation by most farmers is an inward groan, but that is precisely what this cycle is trying to tackle.
It's being undertaken by my fellow Limerick native Liam Lysaght, head of the National Biodiversity Data Centre, with whom I crossed paths many moons ago when we were both studying geography in college.
Conservation is almost always seen in a negative light.
Whether it's controversies about developments that damage wildlife or gloomy reports about species under threat, conservationists are perceived as cranks blocking progress.
As Liam puts it, they are "what Willy Wonka might consider as being just all-round bad eggs." He finds this very frustrating.
Part of the problem, he says, is that nature conservation in Ireland is not taken seriously at early stages of the planning and other official processes. This means it is always fighting a rear-guard action and this in turn creates a disconnect between conservationists and the public.
Bridging this gap in understanding is one of the objectives of Liam's cycle.
He wants to awaken people to the wonders of our wildlife and convince them that it is worth protecting for future generations.
In particular, he would love to broaden appreciation of our wildlife among farmers who are the guardians of most of our landscape.
Sixteen per cent of Ireland is designated by the EU as Special Areas of Conservation (SAC).
One way of looking at this status is that it restricts farming activities on these lands.
Liam has a different perspective; he believes we should see Ireland as fortunate in having 16pc of its land as "absolutely special in having characteristics which are unique or absent in the rest of Europe."
This also presents fantastic and, to date, untapped tourist opportunities, he says.
Agri-environmental schemes such as REPS as being too rigorous and bureaucratic, he argues.
Instead, he suggests that targeted schemes organised at local level would work far better. "You identify the issues and work out what needs to be done ecologically."
A good example, he says, is what happened in West Kerry with the natterjack toad habitat scheme where farmers were paid by the National Parks and Wildlife Service to establish and manage the toads' breeding ponds. "We know what is needed and there is no practical reason why the situation can't be turned around," he insists.
"This is not rocket science, nor does it have to involve massive amounts of money." He admits it would be naïve to think that all conservation issues can be solved simply or cheaply.
However, there is much which can be done on the margins of farms or on roadsides that would have an enormous impact.
Examples are letting small areas "go" or leaving areas uncut for the main summer months. "Unfortunately, local authorities do not seem to be geared up to work this way."
While controversies get more airtime, Liam says there are plenty of good news stories to tell. He says that many farmers undertake much good work on this front for no reward and, indeed, often involving personal financial cost.
This work is rarely recognised and he hopes his cycle will highlight some of what is being done, by landowners, local communities and others.
He plans to cycle over 3,000 km around Ireland, visiting and writing about some 60 wildlife sites in 19 counties.
The clockwise route includes 19 SACs, 13 nature reserves, 12 wetland protected sites, three forest parks, three golf courses and a World Heritage site (the Giant's Causeway).
Having previously worked in the Connemara and Burren national parks, Liam was one of the first staff employed by the Heritage Council when he was appointed head of the National Biodiversity Data Centre established, in 2007.
I agree with much of what Liam is saying. I think the biggest single problem in managing and protecting the agri-environment is the failure of the EU to engage with interested and effective people at local level.
Hopefully, Liam's cycle will be a success and maybe those further up the line will take notice. He starts on August 1 and there is more information on wildirelandtour.ie
On a related matter, we were recently visited by members of the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland (BSBI) who undertook a fieldtrip to a wetland on our farm in Ballacolla, Co. Laois.
They recorded almost 130 species of plants, many of which are now relatively rare in Ireland, mainly because so much land has been drained.
These included the Lesser Water-plantain, Skullcap and Buckthorn. They also spotted the Brimstone butterfly which relies on Buckthorn.
This land can only be grazed in the summer months and is adjacent to an even wetter area which has been totally fenced off from livestock for at least 50 years. Interestingly, the grazed area is actually more diverse than the fenced one,where a few species dominate.
It goes to show that farming doesn't always have a negative impact. It's about what you do, where you do it and when you do it. Small changes can have big impacts.
Knowledge is power.
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