This piece ran in the Business Post in early May, inspired at least in part by the devastating fires that swept many of Ireland’s uplands yet again this Spring, an annual ritual, it seems, that comes around with depressing regularity, and for whom no one is ever truly held to account.
YOU WON’T save what you don’t love. In the world of conservation, activists and scientists have long struggled to engage the public emotionally with efforts to prevent the destruction of the seemingly remote natural world. This is likely why, for instance, the World Wildlife Fund uses the cuddly Panda as its symbol.
Similarly, the plight of dolphins, polar bears and other so-called charismatic megafauna are often highlighted to try to tug on the public’s heart-strings. Who could forget the images of terrified koalas fleeing the Australian wildfires in 2020?
To most people in Ireland, our contact with wildlife is sporadic at best and restricted to the odd sighting of an urban fox or a buzzard overhead.
Notwithstanding this apparent disconnect, there was widespread shock in recent days as fires raged across uplands from Cork and Kerry to as far north as the Mourne mountains. In the case of the Killarney national park, up to 3,000 hectares have been affected, which is around half the entire area of the park.
Killarney national park generates around €400 million in tourism revenues for the region annually, and this has now been put in jeopardy by what appear to be deliberate fires started by landowners seeking an easy way of clearing scrubland for grazing – a recurring pattern of behaviour routinely defended by farm organisations as ‘best practice.’
According to nature and wildlife film-maker, Colin Stafford-Johnson, “we have wrecked this island – a lot of it is now an ecological desert.” He feels that while we as individuals love nature, “as a country, we don’t value it at all”, he told me.
He recalls recently driving past a spot in Mayo where this time last year, Yellowhammers were nesting. He was shocked to see the local authority had destroyed the hedgerow. “I’m sure this wasn’t malicious, it’s just they and so many other people have no sense of nature, no feel for it.”
As for Ireland’s ‘green’ reputation, he noted wryly: “It’s factory green; the reason Irish fields are so green is because we throw so much fertilizer on them…don’t sell me the idea that we’re working with nature.”
While Stafford-Johnson has produced nature documentaries for both the BBC and RTÉ focusing on the wild flora and fauna of Ireland, in reality such programmes are now vanishingly rare.
Agriculture and food journalist, Ella McSweeney believes Irish people do care deeply about nature, but feels the real issue is why it gets so little media space. “We need a massive increase in coverage of what is happening to the life around us and how we are managing the land”.
From the 1960s, RTÉ was producing and broadcasting regular high quality nature programming, most notably ‘Amuigh Faoin Spéir (Out Under the Sky) and ‘To the Waters and the Wild’ and their presenters, Éamon de Buitléar and Dutch-born Gerrit van Gelderen, were household names.
These programmes introduced many people, including this writer, to the wonders and mysteries of Ireland’s rich natural heritage. These shows had largely disappeared from RTÉ by the early 1990s, so a whole generation has grown up without any such window into our natural world. On RTÉ radio, the excellent ‘Mooney Goes Wild’ remains popular, but lacks the kind of society-wide impact that only television can deliver.
Speaking on the Late Late Show in 2001, the late de Buitléar said we Irish are “terribly careless about the environment.” He warned presciently of the ecological pressures of livestock agriculture, adding: “we’re having terrible problems with (live)stock on land, we have problems with spreading slurry on land, because at times, the land just cannot take it.” He added that as Ireland’s weather is projected to get wetter overall, this problem would only intensify.
Formal recognition of the crisis came when the Oireachtas declared a ‘Biodiversity Emergency’ in 2019. “There is no real appreciation of the scale of the problem, it’s still not coming home to people that it’s happening here, in their own locality,” according to Liam Lysaght, director of the National Biodiversity Data Centre.
He believes there is “a dearth of farm-gate advice on biodiversity,” adding that our agricultural colleges do not appear to mention it even in passing to students.
This situation has doubtless been worsened by the cynical framing by some politicians of even the mildest environmental protections as being somehow driven by an irrational urban elite and ‘anti-rural Ireland’.
The true urgency of the situation was driven home with the recent publication of a report by Birdwatch Ireland. It found one in four Irish bird species are now facing extinction, with nearly two thirds of all species rated as ‘threatened’. Ominously, the situation for bird populations has deteriorated since 2013, in parallel with rapid dairy intensification.
Pressures related to agricultural practices are growing. Over the last 50 years, pesticide use in Ireland has increased six-fold. A recent Environmental Protection Agency report noted that just 20 Irish rivers are now in “pristine” condition, compared with over 500 in the 1980s. “Ireland’s reputation as a food producer with a low environmental footprint is at risk of being irreversibly damaged”, the agency warned.
The National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) is charged with overall responsibility for managing Ireland’s national parks and for the protection of special areas of conservation, covering over 87,000 hectares.
Its Cinderella status was confirmed as its funding was slashed over the last decade, falling to just €11 million in 2017. This paltry budget meant management of our vast national parks has been woefully inadequate, with minimal detection and prosecution of arsonists.
Last October, Heritage minister, Malcolm Noonan reversed years of systemic neglect by increasing the annual budget for the NPWS to €29 million. It’s a small but significant step towards recovery.
Ironically, some of Ireland’s biggest environmental offenders are in fact state agencies, including the Office of Public Works, Coillte, the state forestry agency, and Bord Na Móna, which finally exited the peat-mining business last June, having razed much of our once biodiversity-rich peatlands.
Ecologist, Padraic Fogarty memorably described Ireland’s blighted natural environment as “a paradise waiting to happen.” That, surely, is something we can all agree on?
- John Gibbons is an environmental commentator and co-author of the Routledge Handbook of Environmental Journalism