Yellowhammers and the importance of hedgerows

HAS anybody seen a yellowhammer recently? Has anybody seen a flock of yellowhammers, asks Damien Enright

The literature says they feed in flocks in winter. I suppose I once saw such flocks but I best remember them on roadside telegraph wires in summer, brilliant yellow against the blue summer skies as my pals and I pedalled past heading for a swimming hole on the Suir in Tipperary or westering home with a song in the air after a day at the lakes in Mayo.

The song in the air was the cock yellowhammer celebrating his nest-full of fledglings in the hedge beneath the wires. Now, I see no yellowhammers and, often, no hedge. No hedge that you could call a hedge, anyway. I see shorn ditches, as scalped as my skull, running for linear miles along straight roads.

Could there be a connection? Science and close observers of nature — twitchers who keep lists of the bird species on their patch — say there is. Current legislation prohibits hedge cutting and upland burning between March 1 and August 31 to protect wildlife, but not only is this not rigourously imposed, but lobby groups, not satisfied with six months suspension, now seek Heritage Minister Heather Humphreys’ permission to add all March and August to the licensed cutting period. Ms Humphreys held a second hearing of evidence for and against the effects of an extension on November 9. A third hearing is scheduled for a future date.

An Taisce, BirdWatch Ireland, the Hedge Laying Association of Ireland, and the Irish Wildlife Trust all argue against the extension. They say various bird species, including yellowhammers, may still have young in the nest as late as September, and the flail saws of contractors, hired at the behest of landowners and county councils, still inadvertently butcher the fledglings and toss the nests to the four winds. That, of course, is one reason why we now rarely see yellowhammers.

Road safety is quoted as the cause. I am all for road safety but I witness again and again in June, July (and August, not withstanding) bare ditches on both sides of roads where there is no need for them. Cut the corners and the overhangs that mar visibility, certainly, but a claim “exceptional circumstances” is no excuse for such vandalism.

Given a licence to also slash and burn in March and August, landowners and local authorities will force to the brink of extinction some of Ireland’s most threatened species. In our increasing urbanised and intensively farmed landscape, countless flora and fauna essential to crop pollination and to the diverse and verdant beauty that makes our island famous worldwide, have no other refuge.

Ironically, the proposers of the extension call themselves “custodians of nature”. About 30% of payments to tillage farmers is for hedgerow management. In some areas hedge cutting by subsidised local authorities is so drastic that it would seem county engineers let the flail saw contractors, paid by the hour, cut away with no invigilation or demarcation of special habitats whatsoever.

An online campaign against the measure has already gathered 25,000 signatures. Concerned readers can sign by googling Uplift Ireland or opening uplift.ie and clicking Campaigns.

I was glad that on the morning of the bad news from America, the sky was blue and the view of green fields and white houses across the blue bay was like a set for a Disney fairytale. Had it been as wet and gloomy as the day before, I might have looked for a cave where I could spend the four years of the new president’s term curled up, hands over ears, hibernating. The deeper the cave, the better, for fear something might dent the self-image of the greatest human being on earth and, in a fit of pique, he’d trigger the apocalypse.

With the fine morning that was in it, and the carpet of russet beech leaves in the garden catching the sun, I felt that even the imperilled status of Irish hedges was a minor issue compared with the fate of the planet. However, husbandry of the Earth begins with the defense of our own local patch. The most diverse nature in that patch, is in the hedges.

I was wrong when I said Donald the Duck was dead in the water; so were millions. However, I was right when I wrote about his narcissistic personality disorder: His view of himself as the Great Leader is now reinforced by the endorsement of the American electorate. Woe betide anyone who should question his diktats. He promises he will first remove Supreme Court judges who disagree with him. Is the Land of the Free now ruled by a prospective despot?


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