Farm Ireland

Friday 23 February 2018

Greater awareness is required to protect existence of wetlands, ponds and wildlife

Sometimes just leaving well enough alone is the answer to preserving valued friends

Joe Barry

Joe Barry

A storm of protest followed recent Government proposals to tighten up the legislation covering land drainage and improvement works.

The IFA was predictably the most vocal of the dissenters and while none of us would want to see a situation where the sight of a digger cleaning a ditch on a farm produces nuisance complaints to the local council, we do need to be more aware of the importance of our ponds and wetlands.

The cry of the curlew, a sound that perhaps more than any other symbolises the haunting beauty of wild, lonely places, is now virtually a thing of the past, and the disappearance of many of our wetlands is partly the cause.

Curlew nest in damp, rushy pastures and on open moorland, and, by using their long bills, they probe for food in soft areas along ditches or shallow pools where their chicks can easily find insect food.

In a survey undertaken in the early 1980s, it was estimated that there were 5,000 breeding pairs in Ireland. A further survey carried out last spring showed a catastrophic decline in the population and it is reckoned there are now as few as 200 active breeding pairs left.

It appears that curlews, along with other breeding waders, have almost disappeared from our countryside and have been suffering from a loss of habitat for many years.

Bird Watch Ireland estimates that around 80pc of the breeding population has been lost since the 1970s.

While curlews are still a regular sight along our coasts in winter, when large numbers of migrant birds from northern Europe come here to feed in our estuaries and wetlands, it is our resident breeding population that is in danger of extinction.

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Huge changes since the 1970s, such as the destruction of peat bogs, afforestation, more intensive management of farmland and also the abandonment of some lands, leading to encroachment by scrub, gorse and dense rushes, have all affected their breeding areas.

In the lowlands, drainage of wetlands and the intensive management of grasslands have further destroyed much of their habitat.

I mention the curlew in particular because, along with the corncrake and the cuckoo, hearing their calls used to be a daily occurrence in springtime. The corncrake is now virtually extinct and the cuckoo, once common everywhere, has become so rare in eastern counties that the sound of its distinctive call is something to remark on.

In the late 1960s, when I was in my teens, I spent a lot of time around lakes, ponds and wetlands, principally to fish in summer and, in winter, shoot duck and snipe. But, as I grew older, these areas became harder to find as farm land was drained and, consequently, the wildlife that depended on such habitats became endangered.

The great flocks of mallard, teal, widgeon and plover of former years are long gone, along with the huge numbers of snipe that used to be found in almost every wet and marshy ditch and field corner.

Having enthusiastically followed the guidance of our advisory services in my 20s by draining many wet areas of land, I now find myself creating the odd pond around the farm and fencing off some remaining wet spots rather than attempting to turn them into additional arable land.

I believe it is more practical to do so, for many of the drainage schemes undertaken in the 1970s were either partial or total failures and, in some cases, the land gradually reverted to its natural state unless maintained by constant intervention with large and costly excavators.

REPS brought about a huge shift in our thinking and, perhaps more than any scheme in the past, helped us realise the value of natural habitats and the importance of protecting them.

It might seem extraordinary to many farmers to think that there might be merit in blocking a drain to 're-wet' some corner of the farm, but if our snipe, curlew and other birds of wetlands, along with the myriad of species that depend on damp and rushy areas, are to survive we all need to do our bit to protect them.

Our function as farmers used to be solely to produce food but we now have an added responsibility. Formerly, we were encouraged to bulldoze and drain copses, hedgerows and ponds along with every other perceived obstacle to achieving higher crop yields but we now live in more enlightened times.

Sometimes just leaving well alone can be the better option.

Indo Farming