Sunday 21 January 2018

Kestrels soar over motorway wilds

King of the road: Shay Connolly's photograph of a swooping kestrel for
King of the road: Shay Connolly's photograph of a swooping kestrel for

Joe Kennedy

The last time I had seen a kestrel perched (and not plucking prey) was in the sunny south-east. Before that I had seen a hovering bird on a foreshore where young rats were scurrying among breakwater rocks.

A motorway drive produced three or more raptors passing into vision like tiny drones spying over the wilderness that has become the biggest habitat creation scheme in this country in more than 200 years. That's according to Padraig Fogarty, an ecologist and author of a new book on the countryside.

Motorways have provided 2,000 hectares of new grassland, woodlands and wetlands where none had existed. Usually fenced off from human intrusion, these embankments and supporting areas provide an untrammelled habitat for wild creatures.

Padraig Fogarty, a former chairman of the Irish Wildlife Trust, describes the motorway reserves as falling into "no specially protected area or management plan to steer its development, yet its future is secure as any national park". He is not particularly happy with those parks.

The 1,000 km of motorways had never been intended as a refuge for wildlife, yet, like the canals and railways before them, they have provided a diverse range of habitats. Native woodlands have already emerged along the older sections. Rocky scree with shallow soil is "flush with orchids in summer", kestrels hover as they hunt, reed-filed ponds remove pollutants, and dragonflies, ducks - even swans - may be seen there.

A government report once pointed out that our heritage was being steadily whittled away by human exploitation and pollution. The natural world has continued to disappear; at least 115 species of plant and animal have become extinct and almost one-third of all species are threatened - witness the perilous status of the hen harrier and curlew currently highlighted by BirdWatch Ireland.

Of our six national parks, Fogarty has found just one "well-managed", The Burren, which has been "exemplary" in its Farming for Conservation programme involving groups working together in protection and management. Other parks, he reports, have been over-grazed by sheep, have been subjected to burning - to be eligible for the 'single farm payment' - and illegal turf-cutting.

There have been serious setbacks to white-tailed and golden eagle re-introduction schemes and many other bird species have become extinct or rare. But there are positive stories, such as the re-wilding of Lough Boora Park in Offaly, where a group of Bord na Mona workers developed a new approach to using the land to give nature a free rein with new populations of rare species returning.

One major urban success story is Beaumont Quarry in Cork, which is now officially recognised as a 'non-designated area of national heritage importance'. Hundreds of plant species, birds and bats have been recorded.

The quest to catch the last fish and the 'myth' of green farming are among other topics in this important book.

'Whittled Away' by Padraig Fogarty (The Collins Press €19.99).

Sunday Independent

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