Our relationship with nature is becoming more disconnected
Ignorance is hardly bliss when it bludgeons biodiversity, especially as the attitude behind environmentally destructive legislation that isn’t even successful can sometimes still have an impact.
Certainly, it was only a year after the Heritage Act of 2018 proposed extending the cutting season under certain circumstance that I first noticed a catastrophic change in our countryside, walking down a boreen one day to be left aghast at the devastation, what with branches mangled, split and broken and the hedgerows hacked lower than I had ever seen before.
Maybe it’s a coincidence that Hedgerow Ireland was also founded that same year, in response to Irish Rail’s destruction of hedgerows.
The problem is not only the Department of Agriculture backing big farmers and landowners who want to rip out hedgerows so they can turn fields into enormous tracts of land, the wood for fencing them coming from the planted forestry — that is also destroying biodiversity — which is often an extra pension pot in their back pockets.
Local authority contractors and other state agencies are also guilty of what many deem to be rural vandalism, thanks to their “unnecessary removal and excessive cutting regimes, often driven by unjustified safety claims,” according to Alan Moore of Hedgerow Ireland.
We have had perhaps two generations in this country with a quite distant, disconnected relationship with nature — this includes farmers
I witnessed it days before the current nesting season began when I spotted council workers on a road I was passing. I did a U-turn to take a closer look, pausing at the traffic stop sign that was in place to facilitate a digger that was busy bulldozing trees and hedgerows. When did it become acceptable to use plant hire normally seen on construction sites on actual plants?
“Are you widening the road?” I asked. “No,” came the answer. “Just tidying things up.”
Tidying things up? More like finishing it off forever, in what could be considered a classic case of the road to hell — or to zero hedgerows and trees — being paved with good intentions.
“We have had perhaps two generations in this country with a quite distant, disconnected relationship with nature. This applies to all walks of life, including farmers,” Moore says.
“Many of us cannot recognise or identify plants or bird species, for example. There is often a failure to realise what we are losing as a result of lack of knowledge in people who are genuinely concerned about biodiversity loss, but are often unaware of the consequences of their actions, be that ‘tidying up’ a natural habitat, the overuse of herbicides or the severe cutting or removal of a hedge.”
Nor is education a magical elixir, for it’s possible to keep your blinkers on and focus solely on learning what you need. Certainly, ignorance can be lethal when combined with contempt and wilfully disregarding the critical role of wildlife in the complex web that connects insects such as bees to birds, bats and right up to us two legged beasties.
For hedgerows are not just vital corridor habitats for wildlife but also provide essential ecosystem services to our society, from carbon sequestration to flood protection, windbreaks for cattle and pollinators for crops.
A 2014 report from the Environmental Protection Agency says an expansion of our hedgerows could make a very significant contribution towards achieving Ireland’s carbon emissions targets.
That same agency also warns that less than a third of the remaining hedgerows in this country are in good condition.
But there is hope, not least because the public is speaking out about what they see happening nationwide. Moore believes Covid also helped as we spent more time walking the land.
But he stresses change needs to be policy led and include better education.
The good news is that Heritage Minister Malcolm Noonan has increased funding to the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) this year by 83pc.
There are also more local authority biodiversity officers, while the NPWS is recruiting ecologists, along with an extra 120 “boots on the ground” conservation rangers to enforce the Wildlife Act, which Noonan is also reviewing.
Let’s hope our county councils and state bodies also get their act together. Because if ignorance is also infectious, it is folly not to wise up before biodiversity is wiped out forever.