In the issue of August 20, Michael Sweeney, managing director of Select Forestry Ltd, claimed the "hen Harrier's protection status is hitting forestry opportunities".
Mr Sweeney clearly has vested interests, standing to gain from increased afforestation of farmland. For farmers in these 'marginal' areas, regardless of whether in Special Protection Areas (SPA) or not, there is a bigger issue to consider – the future viability of their farming enterprise and the interest of the next generation in farming.
The Hen Harrier SPA has in fact encouraged people to continue farming rather than sell out to forestry. The SPA has brought financial supports like the National Parks and Wildlife Service scheme, where farmers are paid €350/ha/yr to maintain and create habitat.
The SPA gives priority access into REPS and AEOS. If the farming way of life and the wildlife that depends on it are to survive, the next Rural Development Programme (RDP) needs to include properly financed agri-environment supports.
Otherwise, farmers in these marginal areas, whether SPA or not, will continue to be lost. The monoculture of sitka spruce will replace farms that have been managed for generations and will be promoted by vested interests as the only viable alternative.
The hen harrier is one of the most spectacular examples of Irish wildlife. Its population has plummeted and forestry has contributed significantly to this decline.
Coming from rural Ireland, I fail to see the local forestry related economy to which Mr Sweeney refers. Despite most SPAs being heavily afforested, no significant sawmill or ancillary industries have been developed.
Where once there were farming families, now there are derelict houses and fields that have been usurped by sitka spruce.
There are ethical reasons why we should protect our natural heritage, but there are also strong financial reasons. A single dolphin transformed Dingle into a major tourist hub. The hen harrier, with its awesome sky dance display, is a sight that people travel to see.
Visitors stay, eat, drink and refuel locally. The health benefits derived from nature and open countryside are undeniable.
Irish people want to see wildlife protected. The hen harrier is an indicator of the health of our ecology. Afforestation has been implicated in the loss of curlew, red grouse, barn owl, short-eared owl, skylark and more.
Few farmers would choose to cover their land with forestry. Agri-environmental supports are vital in the next RDP to help the wildlife that depends on farming.
Perhaps those with no love for the land or our heritage see the land as ideal for sitka spruce production and good for nothing else.
If such attitudes were to prevail, we would see the end of the hen harrier, wildlife and the rural communities of these areas.