Lamentably, curlews are much rarer now although not, I think, as a result of our uninformed predation. Should they disappear as a breeding species they will be a great loss to the character of our wild places, to the pleasure of ramblers and anglers, poets and musicians. No longer will we hear that plaintive cry so often enshrined in the airs of pipes and tin whistles, that lonely call invoking the bare hills and still lakes of the uplands, the clear note in the air recalling a spiritual yearning especially associated with Ireland and the romance, often tragic, of our history.
I still regularly see curlews on the shores of my local, west Cork estuary, curlews and whimbrels, both, but the whimbrels, lighter, slimmer bird, with a shorter decurved bill and three stripes along the head, are passage migrants, while most of the curlews come from northern Britain and Scandinavia to winter here.
A 2011 BirdWatch Ireland survey revealed that Ireland is in serious danger of losing its breeding curlews. The 5,000 pairs recorded as breeding 1988-1991 has fallen to 200 pairs, a decline of 96% and of sixty breeding sites amongst the hundreds recorded then, only six remained occupied when revisited. In Mayo, only four pairs were nesting and four in Donegal.
Habitat loss, as usual, is the culprit. The birds nest in damp, rushy pastures and on open moorland. Drainage schemes destroy nesting grounds but are not the only threat.
Dr Anita Donaghy, the project manager for a BirdWatch Ireland curlew conservation initiative launched at University College, Cork, says: “The marginal upland areas where Curlew breed have been widely destroyed or fragmented by a range of land-use pressures. Afforestation, commercial peat-cutting and wind farm developments are all factors that have probably contributed to the decline.”
The study is funded by the EU and BirdWatch Ireland’s Cry of the Curlew Appeal, which seeks to raise funds to study and protect curlew habitat into the future. The bird has been red-listed as endangered worldwide since 2007, and Ireland is an important area in its range.
Even more serious than the demise of Irish curlews is the threatened demise of Irish small food producers in the face of supermarket greed. As Philip Boucher Hayes demonstrated on “What’s Ireland Eating?” (RTÉ 1, November 1), supermarket giants in pursuit of ever-greater profits are squeezing local producers so severely that many have had to abandon production altogether. The supermarkets then buy from foreign producers who, due to lower overheads, can supply the goods more cheaply. This boosts supermarket profits yet further, while devastating the home economy and damaging the atmosphere with carbon emissions from long-distance transport.
The supermarkets claim to boost employment but as countless shops and producers close down many more jobs are lost than are gained. In less ‘developed’ economies, small shopkeepers employ and source goods from neighbours at a living wage; anyone who has ever visited a souk or bazaar will have seen how a hole-in-the-wall outlet can support an extended family. They are not rich, but are secure and relatively comfortably off in the local economy.
Two weeks ago, Britain’s Labour Party leader Ed Miliband made a speech in which he attempted to distinguish between ‘productive’ and ‘predatory’ capitalism. The distinction was fudged, but it appears to me that the small shopkeeper is an example of ‘productive’ capitalism, investing in local goods and selling them at an acceptable profit, while the supermarkets, squeezing the producers literally to death, is ‘predatory’ capitalism at its most virulent. Last year, Dunnes Stores directors Frank Dunne and Margaret Heffernan were paid a dividend of more than €14m. This, while small producers were driven to the wall.
Miliband’s distinctions, like the demands of the protesters at economic summits, are vague on action. However, many readers will agree that cutting the already small margins of producers until they are put out of business and onto the dole, is not right. It isn’t fair, and it doesn’t make sense.
The banks have been reined in. Legislation should now be considered to curtail this ‘predatory’ capitalism, with its dangerous economic and human cost.