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Killing off our wild bird populations will kill the sustainability of our food production system

BirdWatch Ireland and Bird- Life Europe have revealed that farmland bird populations in Ireland and across Europe are at their lowest levels since records began.

Due to this dramatic decline in the numbers of so many species, the figures have received widespread publicity, including criticism about modern farming methods.

We must try to understand the importance of protecting our remaining wild bird populations and ensure that the farm organisations do not engage in anti-conservationist ranting.

Criticising the work that conservationists carry out would be not only stupid but positively harmful. This type of reaction just gives farming a bad name and ensures that we lose the trust of the wider community and those who shape farming policy.

It is too simplistic to argue that we don't need corncrakes or skylarks and that the financial wellbeing of farmers overshadows any environmental considerations. We do need them and while most farmers make good efforts to preserve and enhance habitat for wildlife, modern farming practices can be harmful in many ways.

Bird Watch Ireland in no way blames Irish farmers for the decline but, unfortunately, intensive farming creates difficulties for almost all wildlife. Monocultures of grain and grasses provide little food for seed eaters unless generous margins are left at the headlands.

Early mowing for silage removes vital springtime habitat. Drainage destroys wetlands and the damage done by removing hedgerows is well known.

Pesticides can kill far more than the target 'pests' by also harming beneficial insects and the birds that feed on them, and continuous tillage depletes the organic matter in the soil.

Slug pellets harm the creatures that eat slugs and rat poison can end up in the digestive systems of birds like barn owls.

Careless spreading of slurry and silage effluent often causes serious pollution, as do incorrectly installed septic tanks, yet howls of protest are heard whenever someone points this out.

I am no exponent of some luddite approach to agriculture that would require us to cease farming profitably and am fully aware that non-native predators like mink, magpies and feral cats also kill huge numbers of birds, but we can all help by following the recommendations.

As in most businesses, there will always be people for whom profit is their only motive and who ridicule others who have consideration for the wellbeing of the environment. But if our farming practices diminish the quality of life of our neighbours or of the wild birds and mammals that share our farmland, then we are not leaving much of a legacy behind us.

Farmland birds are important indicators of the ecological health of our countryside and the recently published figures show how bad the situation is. Grey partridge numbers are down a massive 82pc, the skylark 46pc, the linnet 62pc and the corn bunting 66pc.

I wrote recently about how the curlew is facing extinction and yellowhammer numbers are at their lowest ever levels, while many other previously common farmland birds have shown significant, long-term declines.

Some might question why this is such a cause for concern but even if you just consider what the countryside would be like without the dawn chorus or the sights and sounds of our many farmland birds, we begin to realise how important wild birds really are.

The campaign initiated in 1958 in China by Chairman Mao to eliminate sparrows had devastating results. Sparrows were condemned because they ate grain seeds so citizens took to banging pots and pans or beating drums to scare the birds from landing, forcing them to fly until they fell from the sky in exhaustion. Nests were torn down, eggs were broken and nestlings killed.

However, by April 1960, Chinese leaders realised that sparrows ate huge numbers of insects as well as grains but, by then, it was too late. Rice yields after the campaign plummeted and with no sparrows to eat them, insect populations shot up, swarming the country and compounding the problems.

The end result was the Chinese famine, when more than 30m people died of starvation.

Maintaining a natural balance in the countryside supports not just birds and biodiversity, but the soil in which we grow our crops and where we graze our livestock, the water we drink and even the air we breathe.

To put it bluntly, if we kill off our wild bird populations we will also have killed off our means of producing food.

Indo Farming