Niall Hatch: Ireland’s birds are faring worse than ever before

63% of Ireland’s 211 regularly occurring wild bird species are now of serious conservation concern
Niall Hatch: Ireland’s birds are faring worse than ever before

Many breeding birds of farmland and bog habitats are faring very poorly indeed. Almost 40% of the red-listed breeding birds are associated with farmland, including corncrake (pictured), curlew, lapwing, barn owl, stock dove and grey partridge. 

The publication this week of a report assessing the status of Ireland’s bird species has brought into sharp focus just how dire the state of nature here has become. 

Produced jointly by leading conservation NGOs BirdWatch Ireland in the Republic and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in the North, and assessing bird populations on an all-Ireland basis, it makes for stark and shocking reading.

The Birds of Conservation Concern in Ireland review, or BoCCI for short, has revealed that 63% of Ireland’s 211 regularly occurring wild bird species are now of serious conservation concern. 

Some 54 species, 26% of the Irish total, find themselves on the red list, meaning they are considered to be at the highest risk of extinction. 

The BoCCI traffic-light threat code system has revealed that a further 79 species, or 37% of the Irish total, are on the amber list, meaning that they are significantly threatened.

As a conservationist, I have to say that these figures are both shameful and terrifying. 

What’s more, since the previous BoCCI assessment in just 2014, the number of red-listed bird species in Ireland has increased by 46%. The conservation status of Irish wildlife is deteriorating at a rapid pace.

This simply isn’t good enough. 

Successive governments both north and south of the border have been failing nature, and therefore their citizens, for far too long. 

Birds are key indicators of environmental health, and changes to their distributions and populations reflect changes in habitats, food chains and wider biodiversity. 

BoCCI isn’t just about the birds: it demonstrates that the very ecosystems that support our own existence – our agriculture, our air, our water – are collapsing.

The truth is that biodiversity has been ignored by government for decades. 

In May 2019, Dáil Éireann loudly and proudly declared a climate and biodiversity emergency, yet since then has done precious little to act on this. 

The Covid-19 pandemic has shown that, when faced with a very serious threat to society and to public health, significant resources can be made available to tackle an emergency situation. 

The biodiversity crisis represents just such a threat, yet it doesn’t even seem to be registering with decision-makers. 

Ireland’s birds are shouting an urgent warning, but it seems to be falling on deaf ears.

The key issue is that sectoral policies, for example, in agriculture, forestry, fisheries and peatlands are not in line with the requirements of wild birds and the habitats they need. 

Coupled with inadequate funding for biodiversity surveying and monitoring and for the active conservation and enforcement of environmental laws, it is no wonder that a biodiversity emergency has been declared.

So what patterns are we noticing? 

One thing that is immediately clear from the BoCCI analysis is that many breeding birds of farmland and bog habitats are faring very poorly indeed. 

Almost 40% of the red-listed breeding birds are associated with farmland, including corncrake, curlew, lapwing, barn owl, stock dove and grey partridge. 

Two of our most iconic seabirds, namely puffin and kittiwake, are globally threatened and have declined significantly in Ireland.
Two of our most iconic seabirds, namely puffin and kittiwake, are globally threatened and have declined significantly in Ireland.

Breeding snipe, which were amber-listed in the previous assessment, are now on the red list, with ongoing small-scale drainage and reclamation of marginal farmland and bog habitats likely to be a key factor in their continued decline.

Two of our most iconic seabirds, namely puffin and kittiwake, are globally threatened and have declined significantly in Ireland, resulting in their red-listed status. With declining populations across their range, there are even fears that these two species may become extinct within the next 100 years. 

The reasons for this are complex, but climate change is a significant factor, with warming seas impacting upon the marine food web and overfishing also playing a part.

Ireland’s wading birds are giving us the greatest cause for concern. The plight of Ireland’s breeding curlews is well documented and, with only 150 pairs remaining, their fate is uncertain, despite concerted conservation efforts. 

Lapwing and snipe, once so familiar and widespread across Ireland, have also suffered serious declines.

The kestrel, once the most common and well-known bird of prey in our countryside on account of its characteristic and conspicuous hovering flight, also now finds itself on the red list. 

Changes in land use and in farming practices have affected their mammalian prey, and illegal shooting and poisoning, as well as secondary poisoning via the use of rodenticides to control rats and mice, are all taking their toll.

Even the greenfinch, until very recently a common and familiar garden bird and a regular visitor to feeders and bird tables, is now on the red list, the victim of its very own disease pandemic. 

The swift, a trans-Saharan migrant that was once such a familiar sight in the skies high above our towns and cities, is also now red-listed, due to a decline in its breeding population, driven in part by a lack of food and of nesting sites.

Upland birds are also in serious trouble. The ring ouzel, a close relative of the blackbird, is now only known from a handful of sites. 

It is a similar story for the twite, a small finch now confined to the coastal bogs of Donegal and Mayo. Even the once-widespread meadow pipit is now red-listed.

It doesn’t have to be this way. The 10-year period from now until 2030 has been designated by the UN as the Decade of Action on our climate and biodiversity crises. 

Government-resourced habitat restoration and species recovery plans must be front and centre in plans to address these.

Financially rewarding high nature value farming through landscape-scale, results-based schemes is critical to support threatened species, as well as discouraging afforestation and intensification of agriculture in important habitats for birds.

It is also essential that Ireland takes proper measures to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, as is ensuring that the deployment of renewable energy absolutely minimises impacts to seabirds.

Establishment of marine protected areas is long overdue, as is ending overfishing, which is impacting marine ecosystems. Our bogs must be properly protected and restored. 

A national breeding wader taskforce to address the impacts to this avian group is also urgently required.

The next BoCCI review will take place in 2027. What will it look like? Will action have been taken by the governments on this island to improve the lot of our wild birds and the habitats upon which they depend?

That remains to be seen, but I take a lot of comfort from the fact that interest in nature, as well as understanding both of its importance to our own lives and the impacts we as a species are having on it, has never been higher in Ireland. 

The Covid-19 crisis has resulted in more people than ever before turning to wildlife, both for entertainment and for solace. Our natural heritage is finally starting to be valued, and the public mood has shifted.

We are asking people to stand up for nature, to demand concerted and effective action from our elected representatives and to take steps in their own lives to benefit wildlife. Transformation in sectoral policies is required if we are going to reverse the declines in birds and restore populations.

We would also urge people to become members of conservation organisations such as BirdWatch Ireland, adding their voice to ours.

  • Niall Hatch is officer in charge of BirdWatch Ireland, Ireland’s largest conservation charity. For more information on its work or to become a member, please visit www.birdwatchireland.ie.

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