With a new series of Planet Earth generating a lot of excitement, Spring, Autumn and Winterwatch on the BBC and Living the Wildlife on RTE, it’s perhaps time to return to an article from a year ago in the Guardian. In it BBC presenter Martin Hughes-Games argues that wildlife programmes don’t help conservation and an excellent example of the disconnect between wildlife programmes and the situation on the ground is currently taking place in Galway city. Despite Friends of Merlin Woods appearing on the RTE series Wild Cities in the past year extolling the value of the Merlin Woods complex to the city of Galway, what a unique resource it represents and the dangers posed to it by an expanding urban population as a section of the meadows is about to be rezoned for development.
Increasingly in an era of online petitions and causes, the idea of “promoting awareness” of problems, through garnering Facebook likes and online debate, is increasingly seen as an important part of any issue. Be it mental health awareness, violence towards women or the plight of wildlife in our increasingly changing world, whether clicking a button will lead people to take a positive action for change is a debate that is perhaps best left to the sociologists. But my criticism of wildlife programmes goes further: the issues are not being raised in the first place. For example, the fox (Vulpes vulpes) and the Sparrow hawk (Accipiter nisus) both appeared in the latest series of Living the Wildlife. After habitat loss (which affects all species) the main threat to these species is persecution from humans and there is a long and sordid history of inhumane treatment of foxes and birds of prey in this country. While laws are in place to prevent this they are rarely enforced and even then punishments do not serve as sufficient deterrent and sadly none of these subjects were raised during the episodes.
Now while it could be argued that wildlife programmes are just that, wildlife programmes and not conservation or environmental advocacy programmes, if those issues are not raised there where and when will they be raised. The RTE schedule features Ear to the Ground, Big Week on the Farm, coverage of the National Ploughing Championship and any number of other programmes promoting farming and many radio stations have a weekly farming slot. Wildlife programmes are the only opportunity to counter this pernicious idea that Irish farming is ‘green’, ‘sustainable’ or ‘environmentally friendly’ and the opportunity needs to be grasped as such. In the recent EPA report Ireland’s Environment – An Assessment 2016 only 21 rivers are classified at the highest quality (0.7% of sites) compared to 575 between 1987 and 1990 and 82 between 2001 and 2003. While urban waste water contributes to this issue it is largely based on diffuse pollution from an agricultural sector that is expanding rapidly as part of a government plan Food Harvest 2020. This is to say nothing of TV3 hosting a programme on climate change that featured a climate change denier and the widespread reporting of the ramblings of people like Danny Healy Rae in a country with the highest per capita agricultural emissions.
So enjoy Springwatch in Spring, Planet Earth 2 with kids and Living the Wildlife next year but bear in mind they represent an idyllic view of wildlife that is increasingly unavailable to most of the population and is rapidly disappearing from our country and our planet.