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Are we at the end of the road when it comes to nature in the hills of Ireland?


A gorse fire on Carrigoona Hill.

A gorse fire on Carrigoona Hill.

A gorse fire on Carrigoona Hill.

At times of crisis it is common to proclaim that we are at a crossroads: a moment of decision that foreshadows a profound change, but are we at the end of the road when it comes to nature in the hills of Ireland?

The National Parks and Wildlife Service has assessed all the habitats of our uplands, as ‘bad’. Overgrazing, uncontrolled fires, forestry plantations and turf-cutting are the chief culprits.

BirdWatch Ireland has identified nearly all the birds which were once characteristic of the uplands as either of ‘high’ or ‘medium’ conservation concern. Golden eagles, Curlew, Nightjar, Red Grouse, Twite, Ring Ouzel, Hen Harrier and more have disappeared from areas where they were once common, or are teetering on the verge of outright extinction.

This is a nightmare scenario for vast areas of our countryside which are so central to our heritage, landscape and rural communities. Is there any way back? Yes – but first we need to challenge some commonly held assumptions.

The first is that burning vegetation will solve the problem. So-called ‘controlled burning’ is not a feature of Irish farming. In 2016 only one permit was issued by the NPWS for a controlled burn, and that was in Boleybrack in Co. Leitrim where the local gun club is trying to rescue the last of its red grouse.

In Britain, controlled burning is to promote grouse numbers. It is associated with illegal persecution of birds of prey while studies have documented the pollution, erosion, carbon emissions, flooding and loss of biodiversity which have arisen from it. It has nothing to do with sheep farming and so is no place for Irish farmers to be looking for inspiration.

Another assumption is that sheep are needed to maintain the hills. There is no evidence for this. Even light sheep grazing on blanket bogs has been shown to damage the vegetation, while the need to keep all vegetation at a ‘grazable height’ (that is, grazable for sheep) promotes the urge to set fires, causing widespread devastation.

In the past, cattle were common on Irish hills and, because they avoid the wetter areas of blanket bog, are much more compatible with nature conservation aims.

The final assumption is that allowing the hills to ‘go wild’ would somehow damage the environment. This is also untrue.

Irish hills are naturally prone to having belts of Birch woodland, with not only heather but a range of other species. There are few upland birch forests in Ireland today but the uplands of Norway are clothed with them. And they’re amazing places for hiking, camping and fishing.

They also happen to have plenty of farmers, proving that grazing animals are not incompatible with forests.

Fire is not a feature of these places – there is simply no need. Farmers earn extra money here from not only their animals, but by harvesting wood fuel and renting land to tourists. Our uplands could be the wonderful places they once were. They could be full of wildlife, enthralling places for people to visit, and provide incomes for farmers.

To get there we need engagement from politicians who can prioritise funding for the NPWS, high nature value farming, agri-forestry, and the native woodland scheme. It can be done with no extra public money – all it needs is political will.

Pádraic Fogarty, is IWT Campaigns Officer and author of 'Whittled Away - Ireland's Vanishing Nature' that would be great.

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