Last November Sir David Attenborough’s Planet Earth 2 attracted 9.4 million viewers for one episode- two million more than watched the X-Factor that night. It was the most watched nature show in the UK for 15 years. No doubt, like myself, many thousands of viewers from Ireland also tuned in, transfixed by scenes of snakes chasing iguanas, rare footage of snow leopards mating in the wild and a face-off between Komodo Dragons.
That’s what makes it so hard to reconcile this interest in nature documentaries with our national ambivalence to our natural heritage here in Ireland. We love all that wildlife in Africa, Asia and the Americas – we’re just not that keen on the stuff back home. Nature, it seems, suffers from Nimbyism. Everyone seems in favour of it, but not just in their own garden, backyard, townland, parish or county.
This might sound like a harsh, sweeping statement damning all. But then again, we’re living in a country where the government tried to change the law to extend the hedge-cutting and permitted burning dates to the detriment of the wildlife habitats. Thanks to a hard-fought rearguard action by a handful of politicians and NGOs and a petition signed by 27,000 people, a watered-down version of the bill looks like to come into effect – a bill that will still allow hedgecutting on road sides to take place in the nesting season.
But where were all the other voices? Where were the huge demonstrations that we have witnessed for other causes? Why were there no monster marches on the streets? Because maybe the vast majority of people don’t just care enough.
Maybe there’s a collective shrug of the shoulders in the knowledge that changing the law won’t make much of a difference, that it’s just copper-fastening practices that have been ongoing and to which a blind eye has been turned for years. The multitude of fires that seem to have ‘accidently’ broken out in the countryside in recent days and weeks is evidence of this. Anyone highlighting these practices is often branded as an interfering busybody trying to prevent hard-pressed, salt of the earth landowners from making a living.
Given the size and cost of some of the machinery involved, it’s hard not to be cynical about the finances of the impoverished lawbreakers. That cynic can also see through the spurious, shameful and disingenuous claim that the change is necessary for road safety. Those making that claim know that the current law allows for hedgecutting for road safety reasons.
The slash-and-burn brigade are not the only ones taking a cavalier attitude to wildlife and habitats. They have fellow travellers in the turf-cutting lobby who shamelessly peddle the line that they are protecting a traditional way of life. Anyone today who still believes this is still some traditional pursuit featuring hardy men cutting turf with sleans is ignorant, naïve or worse. Most of this work is being carried out on an industrial scale with machinery on a par with the State-sponsored destruction being wrought by Bord na Móna.
Why is this wholesale destruction of our natural habitat happening without much opposition? Because we have lost our connection with nature and the natural world on our doorstep. But it goes beyond that. Nature, wildlife and habitats have been demonised. Does that sound extreme? Just read reports about snails holding up the construction of roads. Then there are the calls for the cull of Pine Martens after a woman in the Midlands was allegedly attacked by one.
Not to mention the perennial calls for the cull of badgers and deer because they’re regarded as a threat. Foxes have been labelled as dangerous vermin for years. Birds of prey have been poisoned because of reports of unproven attacks on lambs.
Yes, a few lone voices in the wilderness decry this demonization and destruction, but the vast majority look the other way and move on. And while we marvel at a Sumatran tiger we see in a jungle in Indonesia on TV, a fox in woodland in Ireland is considered vermin to be wiped out. We don’t really want wild animals near us.
Everywhere, nature is under attack and this assault is not only tolerated but encouraged. In their everyday lives many people are willing participants – the replacing of traditional hedgerows with ranch fencing, laurel hedges, concrete walls and security gates, the unnecessary felling of trees when clearing sites for house building, the cutting back of wildflowers on roadsides under the name of weed control, ridding gardens of natural wildflowers because they don’t fit the look and feel of a modern garden, floodlighting McMansions in the countryside – it is an onslaught and it’s widespread.
It’s as if people have an abstract, idealised view of the countryside but don’t like the reality of the messy, wildness of nature. They want pristine, tree-less fields and hedges, perfect gardens, tarmacadam driveways. In short, they want an urbanised countryside.
The truth is, despite the popularity of nature programmes, not only are we in denial of the destruction of nature on our doorsteps, we are willing helpers in this destruction. We are not just helpless bystanders, we knowingly partake in, and condone, this relentless assault on our natural habitat – all in the name of progress. Nature is a wonderful thing, but not just here in my backyard, front yard or anywhere near me seems to be the prevailing view. Yet those nature documentaries make for great viewing in our living rooms.
If we cannot connect the dots between our behaviour and its impact on the natural habitat on our doorstep, there is little hope of tackling the larger, more complex environmental issues facing us on a global scale.
*Jeremy Hughes is a pseudonym.