The country is facing “stark choices” if there is a desire to save endangered species of birds in Ireland, according to a conservation group.
Birdwatch Ireland has told the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Culture and Heritage that in the last two decades Ireland has lost around half a million waterbirds - a reduction of almost 40%.
The committee heard that more than half of the 15 wader species that regularly winter here have declined - lapwing are down by 67% in less than 20 years; mallard have declined by more than 40% in the same period.
There have been declines of 30-80% for the greenland white-fronted goose, tufted duck, goldeneye and pochard. It said curlews and corncrakes are “now on the verge of extinction in Ireland”.
The group warned that climate change has played a role and that the farmland landscape has become less hospitable for wildlife as agricultural methods and technologies have intensified.
Anita Donaghy, head of species and land management in BirdWatch Ireland said there is a need for a dedicated Department for Environmental Protection: “The National Parks and Wildlife Service, yes, they do an excellent job, but they're a very small, tiny department within a much larger one, and they don't have a voice."
I think for some species, we are talking about very stark choices, particularly in relation to agriculture and intensive agriculture.
"We can't have intensive agriculture and retain some of these farming species that are important to us things like curlew, lapwing, corncrake - you can't have both always and there needs to be a much greater recognition that if we value these species, as much, of course, as we value farmers and everything that they do and the importance of that industry.
"But equally the farming birds and the biodiversity associated with farmland is fast disappearing, and to tackle that you needed a department, which is much stronger and which is able to engage at a much higher level with the Department of Agriculture."
Oonagh Duggan, assistant head of policy & advocacy for BirdWatch Ireland, said members of the public get “very upset” about the impact of hedge cutting during the bird breeding period, between March 1 and Aug 31, and said it is “the number one complaint we get at Birdwatch Ireland”.
“We've seen a huge increase in people's concerns about hedge cutting in the last few years, and I think it ties in with the general sentiment that people are concerned about what's happening with the environment, between the extreme weather events of last year, and impacts of climate change and marine plastics, there's a big coming together.
"A tipping point has been reached where people just want to see more nature and not less,” she said.
She said while there are important provisions to allow hedge cutting to improve road safety, she believes this is exploited: “Sometimes we feel that reason is used to cut hedgerows where there might not be an obvious road safety concern. So it's a tricky one. It is used and abused, possibly a little bit."
The committee was also told that Birdwatch Ireland would support the hiring of ecologists within the planning departments of local authorities to advise on planning applications.