Ireland Is Facing Extinctions, a Greatly Depleted Countryside and Climate Change – we don’t need more bird boxes!

(The following article on the lack of funding towards biodiversity and ecology in Ireland was sent to us by an author who wished to remain anonymous, as the opinions shared may negatively affect their career and the organisations they are tied to)

Photo taken by Bernie Carney on the 10th of March 2019 in Killarney, Co Kerry

I recently attended the National Biodiversity Conference in Dublin Castle, and was left both hopeful and enthused by the calibre of the amazing scientists we have working in the biodiversity sector in this country. However, on seeing the RTE. news coverage that followed later that day, I was shocked and depressed to hear a summary of what one of our top politicians gleaned from her short stay at the conference. Our Minister for Heritage, Culture, and the Gaeltacht suggested in her interview with an RTE reporter that we should all help biodiversity by erecting bird boxes and bird baths in our gardens. This is like the Minister for Health – at a time of a global apocalyptic epidemic – telling us to keep our medicine cabinet stocked with plasters and Lemsip.

It just doesn’t come close to the right solutions and makes one wonder was she at the same conference? Are our politicians so out of tune with current science? Did she listen when we heard Director General of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the Director for Natural Capital in DG Environment, European Commission, talk about the 6th mass extinction of life on our planet? Did she hear when our top scientists discussed how loss in biodiversity will result in the loss and fracture of vital ecosystem services for humans?

What we need is real political leadership and policy changes and investment. We need proper funding for the National Parks and Wildlife Service, who are responsible for protecting our biodiversity, and the National Biodiversity Data Centre, who are currently managing on shoestring budgets and have been for many years; and proper structures and funding for Environmental NGOs. The Irish Wildlife Trust, Bat Conservation Ireland, Irish Whale and Dolphin Group, BirdWatch Ireland and the Herpetological Society of Ireland (HIS) to name a few, have so much expertise to help advise policy.

A few years ago, an assessment by the Department of Heritage, Culture and the Gaeltacht estimated that our national biodiversity contributes a minimum of €2.6 billion per year to the Irish economy through vital ecosystem goods and services. Yet we are consistently failing to protect this vital resource which underpins our food production systems, clean water and human health. Globally we are facing the sixth mass extinction of all species, a mass extinction that is due to human impacts. Extinction is often pointed out to be a natural phenomenon, and indeed it is. BUT the current rate of extinction across the globe is about 1,000 times higher than would occur in the absence of human activity and over-exploitation. One of every bird species on the planet is threatened with extinction; one of every four mammals, one of every three amphibians… these are shocking statistics. In Ireland, about one-quarter of our species are threatened with extinction! That’s one-quarter of our birds, mammals, fish, insects, and wild plants! The Yellowhammer, Corncrake, Curlew and skylark are just some of the birds who have disappeared from our countryside.

Image sourced from free-images.com

Individuals and Community groups across Ireland are doing so much to help biodiversity on their local patch but we now need major changes, policy-driven changes to reverse declines. The biodiversity sector must be appreciated and funded appropriately. Let’s just look at one sector – agriculture. Farmers are the biggest landowners in the country, so if we want to protect biodiversity, farming systems must be somewhat biodiversity-friendly. Farmers must be paid to make changes – proven evidence-based changes that will have real impacts on a large landscape scale. Farmers run businesses, a farm is a business. It’s important that ecologists understand this. Terms like ‘custodians’ and ‘caretakers’ of the countryside can seem patronising when someone is running a business and raising a family and paying bills. Instead wildlife conservation on their land must make financial sense. Farmers must be compensated for land that is designated for wildlife habitat. They must be taught how to manage hedgerows for wildlife, how to quantify the wildlife value of their lands, how to identify the best spots on their farm which can be cultivated to encourage even more wildlife.

Did you know that young farmers enrolled in the Green Cert – their agricultural training – students aren’t offered modules on biodiversity, or ecosystem services and they aren’t taught what biodiversity we have in Ireland. So how would farmers know how to conserve wildlife? They are not taught the implications of river pollution or how the worm diversity in their soil reflects how healthy their farmland is. They are not told what birds, insects and plants are bio-indicators and should be present on a healthy parcel of Irish land. They are not encouraged to think about their farm as part of a wider ecosystem, but instead as an individual independent business, often hampered by nature rather than part of it.

Likewise, Ecologists must be engaged by the Department of Agriculture to administer environmental schemes. Farmers are not currently given good advice when they are enrolled in environmental protection schemes. Indeed, elements of the GLAS scheme seem to have been plucked from thin air rather than being based on good conservation evidence that could have had real impacts. At the Biodiversity Conference, a representative from the Department of Agriculture was asked by a member of the audience how many staff they have working for the Department and how many are Ecologists? He proudly explained “We hired three Ecologists recently” and the audience member innocently wanted to clarify “for each county?” No, that was three ecologists in the whole Department of Agriculture out of a total 3,500 staff!

That’s not enough. Surely there should be one trained Ecologist who can act as a Farm advisor for their environmental schemes in each county. So, farmers have an expert on hand to guide them through evidence-based actions. I have attended GLAS training days for ‘Farm Advisors’ – most admit to knowing nothing about wildlife. Their job is to help farmers fill in forms and draw down payments. They have no training in ecology. How could their 2-day training schemes to become Farm advisors scrape the surface of how farmers might implement biodiversity actions? Most farmers want to do ‘the right thing’ by nature, they don’t want to degrade their land so much that nothing wild can survive there but for years, for decades, they have been lectured to by Teagasc and the Department of Agriculture only about production. They have been brainwashed into producing as much sellable product as possible from the land they have – and this was the mark of a successful farmer, be that product livestock, dairy or tillage.

GLAS and previous environmental schemes were just seen as box-ticking exercises to allow the release of payments – and were initiated because they were told to by Europe. Instead of embracing the real opportunity presented by these payments they were tolerated and made to have no impact on production, and ultimately no real impact for wildlife either unfortunately. Teagasc encourage farmers to produce the biggest amount of product and returns possible, and if that means using a lot of pesticide or fertiliser on their land, so be it. That must change. Every farm could have areas that have high-production, intensively farmed areas, but also include areas that are protected as good for wildlife. We must stop draining the country’s wetlands, we must let our hedgerows grow as they did in the past, by not cutting them into shorn box shapes every year, which support no life.

Image of cut hedge sourced from Pixabay

The same representative from Department of Agriculture quoted the land area of Ireland that is under hedgerow as this great positive statistic but what if those hedgerows are very poor habitats? What if they have been mismanaged for many years? That means they are redundant as wildlife habitat. Just listing the kilometres of land under hedgerow does not equate to good habitat. Small changes on farmland could make a huge difference and help reverse declines in insects, birds, bats and pollinators.

The Secretary General of the Department of Heritage, Culture and the Gaeltacht mentioned at the conference how she would like to see a new public awareness campaign for wildlife in Ireland, a ‘Love Nature’ scheme. I can imagine what this would be – another ‘Notice Nature’ website, perhaps funding some television programmes, or radio advertisements or events for Biodiversity Week to ‘get people reconnected with nature’ Indeed the children will probably be the focus of such a campaign! This is not what is needed! This has been done before! A disconnect with nature, while it probably exists, is not the reason behind mass extinctions – the reason is changes in land use and intensification of farming over the last few decades. Reconnecting children with nature is not going to stop farmers spraying pesticides or ripping out hedgerows. Instead incentivising these businessmen and women to protect their natural habitats on their land will create real change. The money spent on a politically-palatable awareness campaign would be so much better spent paying trained ecologists to help farmers and pay farmers to create real landscape changes by the biggest landowners in the country.

The suggestion from the Department was that we had to make nature ‘cool’ – first of all, nature is already cool. It can’t be rebranded by some expensive marketing company in any way that will make any real difference. I found this suggestion so patronising. For decades we have had beautiful nature programmes about Ireland’s wildlife on television, for those of us old enough to remember Gerrit Van Gendren and Eamon De Buitlear’s films, we know that a lack of awareness is not what is causing mass extinctions! Indeed, there has been a consistent flow of award-winning wildlife films on Irish television over the last number of years. The Heritage in Schools Scheme has done wonders in bringing nature experts into classrooms to educate our children. Wildlife experts in this country have produced beautiful coffee table books, tomes on how wonderful our wildlife is. There are already enough feel-good actions around education and awareness, what our depleted biodiversity in this country now needs is landscape changes. We need to engage significantly with the farming sector, and make biodiversity support a payment for the public good. We are way past awareness campaigns on the road to extinctions. This may have been a useful approach in the 1970s and 1980s to engage the public and farmers and educate before all the destruction that followed. But now it is too late for such campaigns at a time when extinctions and Climate Change loom over us. The clock is ticking…

The answer lies in policy changes, in making tough decisions, in engaging with our top scientists when coming up with environmental scheme payments. The Parks and Wildlife Service have been shunted from one department to another over the last few decades. No one seems to want this brief. There are no votes in protecting peat bogs or designating lands. This is Parish Pump politics at its worst. Farmers must be paid to create and maintain wildlife-friendly refuges on their farms around the country. Wildlife crimes, such as illegal tree-felling, illegal burning of our uplands, or persecution of birds of prey and marine mammals (in particular seals), and hedgerow removal must be followed up, and that means investment in NPWS. We need prosecutions that stand up in court.

Our Conservation Rangers employed by NPWS are at the forefront of wildlife protection, but they are so underpaid it is shocking. Most have degrees or indeed Masters, or PhDs in Zoology or Botany and yet the employment terms when advertised do not specify that one must have a science degree! You know why? Because they don’t want to pay properly for such well-trained staff, because the budget isn’t there. Therefore, they can’t advertise for well trained staff, but of course they get them anyway, because people who want to do this sort of work have a passion for wildlife. It is seen more as a vocation than a career. Most trained ecologists volunteer so many hours with NGOs or on monitoring schemes anyway, but they should never be required to work on a low salary because the biodiversity sector hasn’t been respected by politicians in this country. We need real change in that value system. We have some amazing scientists working in this country, but their hands have been tied for decades on the impacts they can have.

They are also afraid to speak out, in case they are seen as troublesome and it will impact on the next job they might apply for. That’s wrong. So many of us feel we can’t speak the truth. If one of my children said they wanted to work in wildlife conservation, I would probably try to change their minds! It’s so hard to make a living, it’s so difficult to have a normal financially secure life in this sector. Perhaps that’s another reason there can be an unease between discussions with Ecologists and farmers or the Department of Agriculture. There is a major underlying anomaly in how we value experts. Farmers and the IFA constantly underline the fact that farmers must be paid as any business would due to any loss of income that results from wildlife conservation on their farms. This makes sense of course. BUT, and this is a big but, trained ecologists are often expected to work for free or work long hours on pitiful salaries. I find that grating.

There seems to be a perception that if you want to work in the biodiversity sector, you love what you do, therefore the salary doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter that you spent 4 or 6 or 10 years in university honing your expertise, now you are working, you should be glad to just work in an area you are interested in. If the same silent but present attitude was relayed to farmers in terms of doing the right thing, there would be a giant protest outside the Dáil by the IFA! If it is seen as important to pay farmers properly, then surely, we should also pay ecologists and scientists properly too! The Biodiversity Conference was jam-packed with our top biodiversity scientists, with experts that are top in their field, be it in peatlands, birds, bats, whales, entomology, ecosystem services, etc. These are some of the most clever, inspirational people you could meet! There is such a wealth of knowledge in this country if only the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Environment would engage with them meaningfully!

Ireland spends a paltry €11million each year on our National Parks & Wildlife Service – including 6 free national parks around the country, all our conservation rangers and DCOs and a Scientific Unit that is grossly underfunded. But yet our taxes give €16million per annum to prop up Greyhound racing, and a staggering €64million per annum to subsidise the Irish horse racing. I don’t want my taxes used in this way, do you? If you agree with me, tell your local TDs, shout it from the rooftops. TDs are forever thinking that there are no votes in nature conservation. Let’s prove them wrong. Individuals and communities have been charged with the duty of making this a political issue, just like with climate change. It’s shocking to think we value racing dogs or horses around in a circle more than the conservation of our wild landscapes, habitats and wildlife and protecting our countryside for future generations.

 

References:

Bullock et al. 2008. The Economic and Social Aspects of Biodiversity. Benefits and Costs of Biodiversity in Ireland.

Ceballos et al. 2017. Biological annihilation via the ongoing sixth mass extinction signaled by vertebrate population losses and declines.

De Vos et al. 2014. Estimating the normal background rate of species extinction. Conservation Biology. Vol 29, Iss 2, Pg 452-462.

Fogarty, P. 2017. Whittled Away. Ireland’s Vanishing Nature.

MacConnell, S. 2000. 18 species of bird on endangered list. The Irish Times Website. https://www.irishtimes.com/news/18-species-of-bird-on-endangered-list-1.273560https://www.irishtimes.com/news/18-species-of-bird-on-endangered-list-1.273560

Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. 2017. Briefing on Revised Estimates for Public Services. https://www.chg.gov.ie/app/uploads/2017/08/ministerial_briefing_finance__vote_33.pdf

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