Environmental efforts: Ireland has a rapidly disappearing natural environment

A new book analyses our relationship with the country’s rapidly disappearing natural environment, writes Anne Lucey

Trees grow well in the west of Ireland but grazing, as well as traditional views that the landscape should be treeless, prevent their regeneration.

WE are not as green as we like to think we are.

Although we “love the outdoors”, few of us join conservation organisations, preferring Tidy Towns efforts.

Whenever we come into the slightest conflict with a species, and most of us do, because we live so scattered about, the species loses badly. Worse, we hardly notice the missing links — that moths are not around as much any more; that the creamy barn owl of the Late Late Show is rarely heard outside our TVs. Even the hedges are disappearing.

Anyone picking up Whittled Away: Ireland’s Vanishing Nature, a forensic analysis of the true state of our relationship with the country’s animals, plants, and bogs, can only conclude that our island paradise is largely lost and possibly irredeemable.

Our much vaunted “green farming” is in reality an emerging “duoculture” made up simply of cows and grass, with crops declining. Our green image is a spin, in other words.

Perhaps unusually, ecologist Pádraic Fogarty shows huge empathy for man in this book — for the coastal communities whose livelihoods have been taken from them, to no avail; and even for the upland farmers who are destroying their own hills.

But there is no getting away from the relentless assault which has driven out 115 species of wolves, boars, cranes, and bears.

The bittern of Francis Ledwidge’s celebrated poem is no longer a resident.

Farming practices are to blame, but so too is political ignorance.

“There are no votes in wildlife,” and the main environmental issues are not high on the agenda of politicians — from councillors in Kerry to senators in Dublin, says Mr Fogarty.

He does not spare the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS), the body responsible for wildlife conservation, which he says is largely ignored by ministers until the European Court comes knocking or there is a report to be launched.

Lough Boora Parklands, Co Offaly, was once a barren wasteland, but in less than 30 years nature has bounced back and it is now a popular recreational amenity full of wildlife. Picture: Whittled Away: Ireland’s Vanishing Nature

The NPWS is held in such disregard, it is shunted between Government departments in “a seat that holds all the authority and gravitas of a seven stone weakling in a rugby scrum”, Mr Fogarty writes. Never benefiting during the boom, the NPWS budget was slashed during the recession. There are few prosecutions for wildlife infringements, from fishing to poisonings to burnings.

RTÉ had no environmental correspondent for a time and the national print media have few reporters dedicated to the issue, unlike in the 1970s and 1980s, when there were high-profile figures such as Gerrit van Gelderen and Éamon de Buitléar.

“Commentary, such as it is, tends to be restrained in tone, something that stands in stark contrast with the UK where vigorous debates concerning nature conservation are played out in print and across the web,” says Mr Fogarty.

But it’s not just disregard that is affecting us. A lot of policies contribute to the degradation. Dark and impenetrable non-native forests, of no use to wildlife, make up much of the growth in tree cover statistics. More than €70m has been spent on the culling of badgers with no firm evidence that there is any effect on arresting cattle TB.

In fact, the growth of number of foxes, which in turn are eating out the nests on the Shannon Callows, may be a direct consequence of the killing of the badger population, the book claims.

The call of the skylark is among the most familiar sounds of summer, but between 1998 and 2010 the bird’s Irish population fell by a third. Picture: Whittled Away: Ireland’s Vanishing Nature

Most disturbing, cruelty is just below the surface of our so-called husbandry: The culling of badgers takes place during the breeding season and parentless badgers are left to starve to death underground; the relentless unchecked burning of uplands is seeing heather replaced by moorgrass, of no use to the grouse.

The uplands, overloaded with sheep thanks to subsidies, have suffered the destruction of

plants, but worse than the constant mulching is the uncontrolled burning to clear the land for more grass, because sheep won’t eat the woody gorse.

The book has wonderful vignettes of hope too, with Mr Fogarty describing the stand of the pine marten in defence of the red squirrel in the epic tones of the stand against the Vikings in the Battle of Maldon.

The reintroduced white- tailed eagles are growing in numbers (despite the poisonings) but there is room for more, for wolves, and cranes, and boars, and lynx, to rebalance the system.

The future of our national parks is not so certain, says Mr Fogarty. Here are his views on the “jewel in the crown”, Killarney National Park.

“Although it is little over 100 km sq it seems perfectly formed,” says Mr Fogarty. “A rich embroidery of lake, river, mountain, and forest, it is possible to find quiet solitude beneath the branches even in summer when the hordes descend on Muckross House.

“Killarney demonstrates our conflicting attitudes towards the environment: On the one hand you won’t find a person in the land who thinks that it should not be cherished and protected. On the other, the park is under serious threat and next to nothing is being done about it.”

There is no wolf to keep the deer numbers low and the sheep and deer together are munching out the forest floor, he says.

“Killarney has ceased to be a functioning ecosystem,” says Mr Fogarty.

Pádraic Fogarty

He maintains the “sylvan idyll” is doomed by more than deer, sheep, and fire.

Rhododendron was being tackled until disagreements between the volunteer ground workers and park staff led to the former’s departure. There has been no camp in Killarney since 2009, and new methodologies since are failing to arrest the rhododendron, which is overwhelming the forests.

Within a hair of losing its lesser Unesco biosphere status recently, Killarney was rejected for full Unesco status in 2007 by a review group under then-environment minister John Gormley

“Killarney was dropped. By international standards, there simply was no evidence the park was ever cared for as an outstanding place.”

Ireland’s other five parks are in a bad way too, he says.

  • Sheep are the reason Connemara has no trees;
  • Burning in the Wicklow mountains is encouraged by farm subsidies and birds there are rare or extinct now;
  • Illegal turf-cutting is widespread in Donegal;
  • In the Burren, golden eagles are struggling to survive.

The book is replete with ironies: The ban on drift net fishing on the coast, while it put small fishermen out of business, has not seen the return of the salmon — and the fish farming that is replacing the salmon is leading to their further demise.

Mr Fogarty, honorary development officer with the Irish Wildlife Trust, is concerned at the lack of people pushing environmental issues. And he’s qualified to know. Married with two children, he is also editor of the Irish Wildlife magazine, works as a professional ecologist, and holds degrees in environmental protection, environment and geography.

Whittled Away: Ireland’s Vanishing Nature by Pádraic Fogarty, The Collins Press, €19.99. Half the proceeds of the book go to the Irish Wildlife Trust, of which the author is honorary development officer.

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