WE are not as green as we like to think.
Although we “love the outdoors,” few of us join conservation organizations, preferring the efforts of Tidy Towns.
Whenever we get into even the slightest conflict with a species, and most of us do, because we live so scattered, the species loses badly. Worse, we barely notice the missing links – the butterflies aren’t as present anymore; that the creamy barn owl from the Late Late Show is rarely heard outside of our televisions. Even the hedges are disappearing.
Anyone picking up Whittled Away: Ireland’s Vanishing Nature, a forensic analysis of the true state of our relationship with the country’s animals, plants and bogs, can only conclude that our island paradise is largely lost and possibly be unrecoverable.
Our much-vaunted “green agriculture” is actually an emerging “duoculture” made up of simply cows and grass, with declining harvests. Our green image is a spin, in other words.
Perhaps unusual, ecologist Pádraic Fogarty in this book shows great empathy for man – for coastal communities whose livelihoods have been taken away from them, to no avail; and even for the upland farmers who destroy their own hills.
But it is impossible to escape the relentless onslaught that has driven out 115 species of wolves, wild boars, cranes and bears.
The bittern of Francis Ledwidge’s famous poem is no longer a resident.
Agricultural practices are to blame, but also political ignorance.
“There are no votes on wildlife,” and major environmental issues are not high on the agenda of politicians, from Kerry advisers to Dublin senators, Fogarty said.
He is not sparing the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS), the body responsible for wildlife conservation, which he says is largely ignored by ministers until the European Court strikes or a report be published.
The NPWS is held in such contempt that it is moved between government departments in “a seat that holds all the authority and gravity of a seven-stone weak in a rugby scrum,” writes Mr. Fogarty. Never having benefited from the boom, the NPWS budget was slashed during the recession. There are few prosecutions for wildlife offenses, from fishing to poisonings to fires.
RTÉ did not have an environmental correspondent for a while and the national written press has few journalists dedicated to the issue, unlike the 1970s and 1980s, when there were personalities such as Gerrit van Gelderen and Éamon de Buitléar.
“The commentary, as it stands, tends to be retained in tone, which is in stark contrast to the UK where vigorous debates about nature conservation take place in print and on the web.” Mr Fogarty said.
But it’s not just contempt that affects us. Many policies contribute to degradation. Dark and impenetrable non-native forests, of no use to wildlife, constitute a large part of the growth in tree cover statistics. More than 70 million euros have been spent on the culling of badgers without any solid evidence that there is an effect on the arrest of bovine tuberculosis.
In fact, the growth in the number of foxes, which in turn eat the nests on Shannon Callows, may be a direct result of the culling of the badger population, the book claims.
Most disturbing is that the cruelty is just below the surface of our so-called ranching: the slaughter of badgers takes place during the breeding season and badgers without parents are left to starve underground; the incessant and uncontrolled burning of the highlands sees the heather replaced by the heather, useless for the grouse.
The highlands, overloaded with sheep thanks to subsidies, suffered the destruction of
plants, but worse than constant mulching is uncontrolled burning to clear the land for more grass, as sheep do not eat the woody gorse.
The book also has some wonderful vignettes of hope, with Mr. Fogarty depicting the pine marten stand in defense of the red squirrel in the epic tones of the stand against the Vikings in the Battle of Maldon.
The reintroduced white-tailed eagles are growing in number (despite the poisonings) but there is room for more, for wolves, cranes, wild boars and lynxes, to rebalance the system.
The future of our national parks is not so certain, Fogarty believes. Here is his take on the ‘Jewel in the Crown’, Killarney National Park.
“Although it is a little over 100 km², it seems perfectly formed,” explains Mr. Fogarty. “A rich embroidery of lake, river, mountain and forest, it is possible to find quiet solitude under the branches even in summer when the hordes descend on Muckross House.
“Killarney demonstrates our conflicting attitudes towards the environment: On the one hand, you won’t find anyone in the country who thinks they shouldn’t be cherished and protected. On the other hand, the park is seriously threatened and almost nothing is being done about it. “
There is no wolf to keep deer numbers low and the sheep and deer together munch on the forest floor, he says.
“Killarney has ceased to be a functioning ecosystem,” Mr. Fogarty said.
He maintains that “the sylvan idyll” is doomed by more than deer, sheep and fire.
The rhododendron was under attack until disagreements between volunteer ground workers and park staff resulted in the departure of the former. There has not been a camp in Killarney since 2009, and new methodologies since then have failed to stop the rhododendron, which is invading the forests.
A hair’s breadth away from recently losing its lesser Unesco biosphere status, Killarney was rejected for full Unesco status in 2007 by a review panel led by the then Minister of the Environment. , John Gormley.
“Killarney has been abandoned. By international standards, there was simply no evidence that the park was ever considered an exceptional place.
Ireland’s other five parks are also in a rough spot, he says.
- Sheep are the reason Connemara has no trees;
- Burning in the Wicklow Mountains is encouraged by agricultural subsidies and birds are rare or extinct there now;
- Illegal cutting of grass is widespread in Donegal;
- In the Burren, golden eagles struggle to survive.
The book is full of ironies: The ban on driftnet fishing on the coast, while it put small fishermen out of business, has not seen the return of salmon – and the fish farming that replaces the salmon leads to their further demise. .
Mr Fogarty, Honorary Development Officer for the Irish Wildlife Trust, is concerned about the lack of people dealing with environmental issues. And he is qualified to know. Married with two children, he is also editor-in-chief of Irish Wildlife magazine, works as a professional ecologist and has degrees in environmental protection, environment and geography.