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It's wrong to pass buck on collapse in bird numbers

Winter and the early months of spring are tough times for our farmland birds. Along with the resident population, we have many thousands of migrants that arrive here from mainland Europe to spend the winter and all are competing for increasingly scarce food.

As I write this it is snowing but the reasons for a scarcity of food are many. The decrease in wild meadows, hedgerows, uncut field margins and wetlands are big factors.

We all can, and should, help our birds survive and for that reason I was very disappointed to see how unhelpful the IFA was in a press release they issued last autumn in response to a survey outlining the huge fall in songbird numbers.

The survey I referred to on farmland bird numbers published by BirdWatch Ireland told of a catastrophic decline, with the numbers of some species falling by more than 50pc.

Undoubtedly, changes in farming practice are partly responsible, but the IFA's Tom Turley blamed the actions of environmental groups rather than IFA members.

"If the bird population is dropping, it's not down to changes in farming practice. Ninety percent of Irish farmland is in permanent grassland and this has not changed over the past 20 years, which totally undermines the BirdWatch claims. The impact of increasingly cold winters and the re-introduction of birds of prey are factors BirdWatch have failed to take in to account," said Mr Turley.

In other words, it's all someone else's fault. Indeed, it's nice to know where the IFA stands on the re-introduction of former native species and amusing to see how they blithely ignore the facts. Nowadays we have monocultures of ryegrass, heavily fertilised and the formerly common 'weed' species that provide so much food for insects and birds are sprayed out of existence.

As a farmer and lifetime member of the IFA, I strongly object to my representatives taking such a 'head in the sand' approach to this serious issue. Surely we can do better than making constant demands concerning our own self interest and, instead, try to show the rest of the community how the landowners of Ireland take their responsibilities seriously.

No doubt some of the good people in the IFA will take me to task for daring to criticise anything that emerges from their press office but maybe they would reflect on the endless complaining they engage in and instead begin to take a positive and pro-active approach. We would receive greater public support for farming if we showed ourselves to be more responsible and caring "custodians of the countryside".

I am not for a moment suggesting that we return to some sort of 1950s style of farming and, of course, we must use the most productive grasses in our pastures, but just don't try and tell me that modern farming practices are not also partially responsible for the collapse in bird numbers. Surely the IFA could try to be helpful and acknowledge the importance of looking after wildlife as well as farming profitably.

Here is my suggestion for the sort of press release I believe should have been issued. The headline would read, 'IFA leaders urge their members to help farmland birds survive'.

"Following on from the recent survey showing how farmland bird numbers have fallen dramatically, IFA leaders are asking their members to do everything possible to halt the decline and ensure that appropriate habitats are preserved and enhanced. Measures suggested include retaining wetlands and closely adhering to best farming practices as outlined in the REPS directives.

"Planting berried trees and shrubs such as rowan and holly in field corners and encouraging ivy on trees will provide winter food and shelter as will ensuring that generous field margins are left untouched in those fields used for silage, hay and tillage. These measures will help provide cover, seeds and insects for those species that most need them along with safe areas for ground-nesting birds.

"Thick, healthy mixed species hedgerows are of immense benefit as are small ponds and copses of trees. All of these can be easily created or retained and fenced off from livestock.

"A spokesman stated that farmers must never forget the importance of all the wild species that share our farmland and we must do our utmost to ensure their survival."

Now isn't that better? Wouldn't that approach earn us the respect and admiration of the wider community? It would also clearly demonstrate how the grants and aids that we receive are money well spent. Think about it Mr Turley.

Indo Farming