Monday 20 January 2020

Natural disaster: our crisis in conservation

Nature: Whittled Away: Ireland's Vanishing Nature, Pádraic Fogarty, The Collins Press, hbk, 376 pages, €19.99

Warning: Ecologist Padraic Fogarty is a former chairman of the Irish Wildlife Trust
Warning: Ecologist Padraic Fogarty is a former chairman of the Irish Wildlife Trust
Whittled Away

Paul Melia

A new book claims a lack of leadership and a failure by politicians to tackle mis-information and powerful vested interests have left deep scars on our natural world.

For a country which prides itself on its green image, it's astonishing how much of our wildlife has been lost over recent decades as progress marches on with little or no concern for the natural world.

Our seas, rivers and lakes are overfished and often polluted, native bird species have been lost or are in danger of extinction, industrial-scale farming has decimated wildlife, there appears to be no management plans for many of our national parks - and without a dedicated minister responsible for ecology, the rot will continue.

But perhaps the most startling fact which Pádraic Fogarty presents in Whittled Away: Ireland's Vanishing Nature is the revelation that the agency tasked with promoting our supposedly sustainable food industry, Bord Bia, receives three times the budget of the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS), which is responsible for the conservation of our natural heritage.

The rot goes deeper. As he points out, farmers who attempt to do the "right thing" lose out financially. Under the Green Low-Carbon Agri-Environment Scheme (GLAS), grants of up to €370 per hectare are paid every year to maintain conservation areas. A landowner who plants non-native forestry including Sitka spruce receives €440.

"In other words," Fogarty writes, "the State recognises the role of traditional farmers in maintaining important conservation areas by paying them substantially less with significantly lower certainty of future income."

A professional ecologist and former chairman of the Irish Wildlife Trust, Fogarty clearly has skin in the game, but this book should serve as a useful reminder about just how much we have lost in recent decades, and how much more we stand to lose unless profound changes are made to how we protect our most valuable asset.

It's not as if there haven't been warnings. The book opens with a quote from a June 1969 report from An Foras Forbartha which highlights how Ireland has a "remarkable heritage" which is of "growing importance" in terms of education and recreation, the pursuit of historic and scientific research and development of tourism.

But it adds: "This heritage is, however, steadily being whittled away by neglect and natural forces on the one hand, and on the other hand by human exploitation, pollution and other aspects of modern development."

Public perception is often at odds with the reality on the ground. Despite the fact that at least 115 species of plant and animal have become extinct since the arrival of humans, and as many as one-third are under threat, the blame appears to rest with birds and bees.

It is often suggested that EU rules on nature conservation and protection of birds including the hen harrier are the cause of farmers' economic woes, making farms "worthless", but the blame is never put at the feet of policymakers, he notes.

"Considering birds don't make any decisions about how land is valued, it can be startling how people can ascribe to them such sweeping powers," he wryly says.

He suggests that only the Burren is being properly managed, with the Wicklow Mountains in a "bad way" and "in crisis", Connemara in need of "urgent surgery" to reverse its ecological decline and "desolation" in Glenveagh National Park where turf-cutting takes place on its boundary.

On government plans to ramp-up food production, he notes there has been little or no analysis or measures to protect the environment and reverse the decline of the corncrake, curlew or yellowhammer and our hedgerows, or to measure the impact of greenhouse gas emissions from the national herd. "Even today, in a world of €3 chickens and where one third of produce is simply thrown away, there is a strong argument that we are oversupplied with food," he says.

He points to some possible solutions, which at the very least are worthy of debate, including the re-introduction of long-lost species like wild boar, cranes and wolves. Wolves were re-introduced to Yellowstone National Park in 1995, preyed on deer, which reduced intense grazing, and resulted in growth of new trees. In Sweden, wild boar were re-introduced and due to their movements, native woodlands flourished.

This fine book, while perhaps a little long, should be required reading for politicians and many of its findings should be debated in schools to at least inform a proper debate on what next for Ireland and our natural world.

There is some hope. Some of the best and brightest minds in the public service, including those in Bord Bia, are "steering the ship in the right direction", but the problem is that industry and government "have yet to pick up the oars and start rowing". Politicians, he concludes, "too often abandon their duty".

"Even now, change and restoration is possible. Do we want it? Just say the word."

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