DAVID ROWE is no typical landowner. Or, in his case, former landowner. This sprightly octogenarian, expert on many things rural, lives in Co Carlow without a phone or a car.
He has donated his entire holding to a land trust, to be conserved for future generations. “What David has donated is land in the form of five fields of species-rich grassland. It has a raised boundary bank of bushes, with a stream bordering one side,” said Nicola Winters of Green Sod Land Trust, the organisation to which David Rowe gave his land, at Red Bog, Clonmore, Co. Carlow.
“The five acres include two cottages, one dating from the 1900s and the other from the 17th century, a large shed, a lawn, an organic vegetable garden, an orchard planted with a variety of fruit trees, and the five fields.”
Founded in 2006, the Galway-based Green Sod Land Trust achieved charitable status in 2007. It recently won the Elevator Award in Social Entrepreneurs Ireland 2011 Social Impact Programme.
The Trust has a main aim of acquiring land for nature, according to Winters. But giving land away is relatively rare in Ireland.
In contrast, very significant acreages — even entire regions — have been bequeathed for nature conservation in the US, and in Scotland, thanks mainly to the work of John Muir.
One of the earliest advocates of the preservation of wild areas, Muir established the Sierra Club, America’s largest and most influential grassroots environmental organisation, and he successfully petitioned the US Congress for the National Parks Bill of 1899. This paved the way for the setting aside of Yosemite Valley, Sequoia National Park and other wilderness areas to nature.
This work inspired conservationists in Scotland, John Muir’s homeland.
The John Muir Trust manages 115,000 hectares of mountain, moorland, coast and wooded glens across Scotland. They are now moving into the Lake District in northwestern England.
The John Muir Foundation in turn provided inspiration for Green Sod Land Trust in Ireland.
“They told us not to move too quickly,” said Nicola Winters. “They were established five years before they received any land. Now, they are one of the biggest landowners in Scotland.”
Winters told me how their first land acquisition came about. “David approached a local politician, Mary White of the Green Party, and told her what he wanted to do with the land. He was looking for the land to be taken over for the future. Meanwhile, some of our members had arranged to meet Mary White about our work. She mentioned that this constituent of hers who was interested in handing land over to a trust. So we went down May of last year  to meet him. We got the impression straight away that he was very committed to the idea of putting his land into a trust.”
A plan is in progress on how to best conserve the land at Red Bog, following a biodiversity study carried out by retired TCD Professor of Botany Dr Paul Dowding.
“Once we know what’s there, the plan is to protect and increase biodiversity.”
Nicola Winters went on to speak about the trust’s other work. They are committed to changing peoples’ attitudes to the land and nature. As well as courses in rural crafts, a comprehensive education programme for primary school children has been established and delivered in over 200 schools in Mayo and Galway.
An environmental studies adult education initiative has also been introduced. “These education programmes aim to reconnect students with our roots deep in nature, encouraging and promoting a sense of awe and wonder at the natural world that will lead to a deeper respect for the environment and its inhabitants,” said Winters.
Both educational programmes are offered free of charge and are downloadable from the www.greensodlandtrust.ie website.
DAVID ROWE is not the first individual to donate land in Ireland for the greater good. A rather colourful set of sisters, remembered for bumbling about Dublin in their Rolls Royces in the middle of the last century, the Overends were amongst the most generous in giving over their land at Airfield House to the state. Airfield, at Dundrum, Dublin, is now one of the most urban of working farms in Ireland, also runs education courses, and includes conservation and formal gardens. Well worth a visit if you are in Dublin, though there is an entry fee (see www.airfield.ie).
Then, Naomi Overend left Rough Island in Donegal’s Mulroy Bay to An Taisce in 1995. Friends of hers also bequeathed land. Kathleen Goodfellow left The Grove — a wildlife sanctuary on Dublin’s Morehampton Road — to An Taisce in 1979, while another friend, Dorothy A Dewar, bequeathed the Gull Islands in Co Donegal, in 1989.
Birdwatch Ireland and The Irish Peatland Conservation Council have also been given land. The IPCC have conserved more than 30,000 hectares of bog in recent decades. Bogs have been bought up and given over to them by outside parties.
The Dutch dug up all of their bogs when they ruled the world in the 15th century. Now, partly out of environmental guilt, the Dutch Foundation for Conservation of Irish Bogs (sponsored by the Dutch World Wide Fund for Nature) runs an acquisition programme with the IPCC. Scragh Bog in Co Westmeath was the first bog bought by the Dutch, and was given as a gift by Prince Bernhard to the Irish people in 1987.
But even when the state has a bog for conservation purposes, things do not always work out as might be imagined. An Taisce won a court case in 2009 against the exploitation of a bog in Kilballyskea, Co Offaly. This land had originally been bought up for conservation purposes. According to An Taisce, it was one of very few remaining intact raised midland bogs, supporting internationally protected habitats and species.
Yet, the bog was given on lease by Offaly County Council to a peat extraction company who applied to mine it on an industrial scale. This permission was supported by the National Parks and Wildlife Service. The decision to allow the exploitation was overturned by An Bord Pleanála.
- For more see www.greensodlandtrust.ie
LAND sales indicate that many Irish farms are worth €10,000 per acre.
But an even higher value is put on land by those who worry about the accelerated biodiversity loss of modern times.
They realise that, ultimately, there is no life without nature and biodiversity, and producing food would not be possible.
Our food varieties, and future food advancements, come from biodiversity, for example, the bees which pollinate up to one third of all plants.
Biodiversity can also contribute to agriculture through pest control, provide carbon storage and sequestration.
Biodiversity contributes material goods such as food, timber, medicines, and fibre; functions such as flood control, climate regulation, and nutrient cycling; and non-material benefits such as recreation.
Medicine as we know it today has biodiversity to thank for numerous remedies — aspirin for pain relief (from meadowsweet), penicillin for antibiotics (from the pencillium fungus), digitoxin for cardiac treatment (from common foxglove), L-dopa for Parkinson’s disease (from velvet bean), taxol for ovarian cancer (from the Pacific yew), and quinine for malaria (from yellow cinchona).
In crude cash terms, what is biodiversity worth? The economic value of benefits from biodiverse natural ecosystems may be up to 100 times the cost of maintaining them, according to recent scientific estimates.
A much cited peer-reviewed figure from 1997 puts the value of biodiversity to the economy at almost twice GNP, or $33 trillion per year globally.