John Gibbons: Wildlife population decline is more acute than we once thought

John Gibbons: Wildlife population decline is more acute than we once thought

A study by Birdwatch Ireland last year found that 63% of Ireland’s bird species are in decline, including the Irish curlew. Picture: Andy Gibson

While efforts at EU level to push through a Nature Restoration Law are being stymied at every turn, is it instead our dysfunctional political process that’s in need of restoration?


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Taoiseach Leo Varadkar told the Dáil this week that aspects of the proposed law “go too far”. They say that in politics, timing is everything. 

Just as Varadkar mounted his stout defence of the do-nothing status quo, a study from the University of Exeter confirmed that business-as-usual would leave around 2bn people exposed to potentially deadly heat later this century and involving what scientists describe as “phenomenal” human suffering.

A separate study released this month confirmed that the global collapse in wildlife populations is more acute than previously understood, with almost half the species on Earth undergoing rapid declines.

This accelerating extinction pulse — the most severe since the mass die-off event following an asteroid strike around 66m years ago — is ripping apart the web of life. Amphibian populations have been devastated globally, with insect, bird, and mammal populations also in sharp decline.

However, according to the Taoiseach — who heads a government whose own Climate Action Plan commits Ireland to stronger nature restoration actions than being mooted at EU level — doing our bit to arrest this devastating crisis is just too much, too soon. 

After all, he explained, it doesn’t “fully recognise how we use land in Ireland in particular”. His position was echoed by the entire group of Fine Gael MEPs, all of whom on the European Parliament's Committee on Agriculture voted for a flat rejection of the nature restoration law.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar believes that the Nature Restoration Launch doesn’t 'fully recognise how we use land in Ireland in particular'.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar believes that the Nature Restoration Launch doesn’t 'fully recognise how we use land in Ireland in particular'.

The only senior Fine Gael figure to show any backbone on this issue has been EU Commissioner Mairead McGuinness, who pointed out these proposals would help, not harm, farmers.

“Without the actions set out in our proposal for nature restoration and the sustainable use of pesticides, farmers’ livelihoods and, indeed, food security will be put at risk,” McGuinness said. 

“This is what the science is telling us.”

As a former agricultural journalist, McGuinness knows well this is not a popular position with the big-money lobbyists, but it remains the truth nonetheless.

Some Fianna Fáil MEPs have similarly rejected the proposed law, while Sinn Féin has adopted its now customary sphinx-like position, with electoral advantage rather than environmental protection in mind, and ever wary of drawing the ire of agri activists.

Predictably, the very rural TDs who claim to represent the “custodians of the landscape” are invariably the most shrill in shooting down any reforms, however modest, that might in any way discommode the agri-industrial lobby whose talking points they echo.

Roscommon TD Michael Fitzmaurice laughably described the EU proposals as “a land grab that would make Cromwell blush”.

 However, rather than being marginalised for such extremist rhetoric, Fitzmaurice is instead a media fixture, afforded copious opportunities to repeat this theatrical, fact-free schtick.

Environment Minister Eamon Ryan yesterday dismissed the “scaremongering” around the proposed new EU law. 

“Are we going to vote for nature destruction law? Is that going to be the future? It doesn’t make any sense,” he added.

So, is Ireland already doing uniquely well in terms of nature protection that there is, in effect, no need for further burdensome intervention, as Varadkar’s argument infers?

“It may come as a surprise that the world we inhabit — here in Ireland at least — has already experienced a total collapse of ecological systems,” according to Padraic Fogarty, ecologist with the Irish Wildlife Trust.

Our native boglands have been almost completely destroyed, and barely 2% of Ireland is covered in native woodland. Of that, only a fraction is intact, biodiversity-rich ancient rainforest.

Apart from the ecological wreckage, this is also disastrous for climate. Emissions from drained grasslands on peaty soil in Ireland are nearly 8.5m tonnes of CO2 per annum — that’s only slightly less than our entire transport sector.

Most of our uplands are in an extremely poor ecological condition, having been overgrazed to the point of collapse, with turf extraction and “maintenance” burning by landowners, legal or otherwise, adding to the carnage of wildlife.

A study by Birdwatch Ireland last September found that 63% of Ireland’s bird species are in decline, compared to a global average of under 50%. Farmland birds are in the most severe decline due to changes in land use in recent years, while water pollution and habitat destruction (including wetland and bog drainage) is also hitting populations of upland birds.

Around one in 10 of all species on Earth depend on wetlands and peatlands. While traditionally considered to be “unproductive”, these lands are havens of biodiversity, as well as performing vital ecological functions, including purifying water and mitigating flooding risks.

Some 60% of all birds use wetlands or peatlands for at least some part of their life cycles, from breeding and feeding, to shelter and protection from predators. 

Loss of these unique habitats has devastating consequences for both our native and migratory bird species.

In the 1980s, more than 500 Irish rivers and lakes were described as being in “pristine” condition. By 2020, that number was just 20, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The top pressure on our waterways is excess nutrients arising from agriculture.

Around one in 10 of all species on Earth depend on wetlands and peatlands.
Around one in 10 of all species on Earth depend on wetlands and peatlands.

Other pressures include land drainage, dredging, forestry activities, and urban wastewater.

Agriculture Minister Charlie McConalogue confirmed this week that at least until 2030, all nature restoration could take place exclusively on State-owned lands, including Bord Na Móna and Coillte holdings, yet even this assurance has done little to dial down the hysteria. 

Joining in the race to the bottom, Fianna Fáil TD Barry Cowen said this modest, limited proposal “smacks of cultural imperialism”.

A common argument put forward by some politicians and lobby groups is that they are defending against out-of-touch urban elites who want to “shut down” rural Ireland. But how accurate is this caricature?

Last month the final report of the Citizens’ Assembly on Biodiversity Loss was published. It had brought together 99 randomly selected members of the public to listen to experts from across the spectrum and to debate the issues. 

The conclusion? The State “has comprehensively failed in relation to biodiversity”. An overwhelming 83% of assembly members supported a constitutional referendum on the rights of nature, while almost unanimously backing nature restoration.

Within weeks of the assembly recommendations, politicians from Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, and Sinn Féin plus most rural independent TDs sided with the agri-industrial PLCs while completely disregarding the will of the Irish people, as articulated by the citizens’ assembly.

The thriving natural world the Irish public actually wants is, according to the Irish Farmers’ Association, “an attack on our industry”. 

Pressure groups with decades of revolving-door access to politicians, civil servants, and media have been deeply frustrated at their inability to shape the outcome of the rigorously independent citizens’ assembly discussions.

Meanwhile, Europe is rapidly drying up. The European Environment Agency in March projected a 50% collapse in food production on the continent in the next 30 years as a result of climate change. With the rest of the world facing similar crises, the spectre of famine is set to return to our shores.

To stave off the worst impacts, we need to set aside as much land as possible for natural systems to regenerate. This can be achieved by shifting to vastly more efficient food systems, including horticulture, that are predominantly plant-based.

Change is coming, like it or not. We’re out of excuses and we’re almost out of time.

John Gibbons is an environmental journalist and commentator

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