B ring back the wolf! That’s the most eye-catching message in Pádraic Fogarty’s hugely important new book on the collapse of the natural environment in Ireland, Whittled Away.
Fogarty’s argument for the return of the wolf to Ireland is compelling: Wolves are a so-called ‘top predator’ and ecosystems need them. Ireland is one of the few countries on earth with no ‘top predators’ and we are paying for this with an explosion in the numbers of other animals, such as deer and foxes. Both of these animals impact heavily on farmers, arguably far more so than would a few wolves.
Wolves were in Ireland before humans and they thrived alongside us for thousands of years until they were hunted to extinction. The last wolf was killed in Kerry around 1710 and the philosopher John Moriarty has written movingly of this emotional and psychological loss to the Irish people.
For Fogarty, wolves represent an ecological loss and his argument has been proved several times by wolf reintroduction schemes around the world.
In Yellowstone National Park in the US state of Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho, the wolf was reintroduced in 1995 and the impacts have been far-reaching. Not only are there fewer deer, the majority that get away have learned to be scared and don’t hang around too long grazing on one area, so vegetation recovered.
A typical European eco-system evolved with a wolf at its apex and positive effects have been felt across the mainland as wolves have crept back from their lairs in the mountains of Spain and Italy. There are breeding packs in
Denmark, France, and Norway, where they had been absent for
decades and even centuries.
There are arguments against bringing wolves back to Ireland, not least from the perspective of the wolves themselves, but Fogarty’s book makes clear that our fear of the wolf and its extermination are
a symbol of our belief that wild
nature is our enemy.
We Irish are at a point in our evolution as a nation in which we are still engaged in fighting the
wilderness, though the wilderness is no more. Humans have won, but it is a hollow victory, because we can’t live well without a diverse eco-system. That’s not something I really understood before reading this book, so used was I to the
persistent narrative that the needs of humans and the needs of wildlife are on a collision course.
We know that our land used to sustain a population nearly twice the size of today, but not many of us truly understand how much of the wealth which used to be in the
environment has wasted away. Back in 1623, for example, Ireland was exporting 20,000 tons of
pilchard annually, which is four times the total catch of all fish from the Irish Sea in 2014. I need hardly add that the poor pilchard were fished away until the last fishery, at Baltimore, was finally wound up in the 19th century and today there are next to none left.
Fogarty declares the Irish Sea “an ecological wreck”. In the 19th century, the water was probably “gin clear”, he says, rather than muddy, as it is today, and there is only a fraction of the fish left in it than was there at that time, due to successive waves of fishing technology, from steam trawling to
diesel engines to scallop dredging.
We are still at it. Just last year, the New Economics Foundation singled out Ireland as the EU country with the worst record for over-fishing, coming away with quotas 26% above what scientific advice suggests is sustainable.
Instead of standing up for the
environment, which sustains us, our politicians seem hell-bent on exhausting it as fast as possible. Fogarty points out that:
In 2014, the “horse and greyhound racing fund” received more than three times the state funding allocated to the National Parks and Wildlife Service’s €14.3m.
That unlike most police forces in Europe, the Garda Síochána has no unit dedicated to wildlife crime.
That no-one has ever been charged for crimes, such as the shooting of a golden eagle chick in Tipperary and the poisoning of a white-tailed eagle, which was about to lay eggs in Connemara.
Perhaps the most devastating
impression you get from Whittled Away is the fact that the landscape most of us treasure is, in fact,
denuded of nature. Reading the book while on holiday in Connemara, I looked at those brown,
treeless expanses with newly
critical eyes. Simply put, we’ve wrecked our country. And it’s not just the brown bear and the lynx and the wolf we’ve lost. The curlew, the corncrake, and the freshwater pearl mussel are just about hanging in there, while the nightjar and the angel shark may already be extinct.
Most of us wouldn’t know a nightjar from a jam jar, but Fogarty evokes the era of the sixth great extinction best by remembering his father’s windscreen covered in dead insects on the summer drives of his childhood. I remember that, too, and the swirling of insects in the headlamps. It’s gone in the few years it took this child to grow to middle age.
Most of us are passionate about our landscape. We need to turn that passion into a new nationalism and reboot our beautiful, biodiverse island. Rather than fighting the EU to cut away our bogs and pollute our waters, we should be fighting within the EU for fair and sustainable fishing and farming policies.
It should be seen as a national disgrace that Minister Heather Humphreys was about to shorten the ban on cutting the hedgerows — which shelter nesting birds — by six weeks last year when the
general election intervened.
It should be seen as an outrage that, in 2014, then minister Alan Kelly in the same government issued the final papers to a private company, BioAtlantis, to mechanically strip 1,860 acres of kelp from the seabed in Bantry Bay.
The lesson I take from Whittled Away, in National Heritage Week, is to make this country a hostile
environment for politicians of every hue who fail to protect our environment. Ultimately it is their decisions which are a threat to our prosperity, not the mythical wolf gazing down on us from his rock.
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