VICTORIA WHITE: Masters of nature will fight a losing battle against the birds and bees

Pic: Mike Brown

Imagine if the drought went on all summer? I think that’s the worry which is niggling at many of us.

Farmers and commercial growers of all kinds are coping with far more than a few niggles. Some will struggle to survive what Keogh’s potato growers called “a perfect storm” of that shocking winter followed by this drought.

It is scary that the political system in this country was not strong enough to bring in a system of charging for water which would have rationalised demand. 

Irish Water reported a reduction of between 3% and 4% in the Dublin area during October 2014 when people believed water charges were coming.

That represented a saving of 20m litres in a month, or €25,000 a day. It is a reduction of a scale which would go a long way towards making Dublin’s water situation sustainable.

We blew it. Now we’re faced with a queasy hosepipe ban, which is no more than symbolic. Virtually no-one is going to rat on a neighbour. Those of us with back gardens can hose away in private, in any case.

I am one of the stupid people who bought an expensive rain water harvesting system a decade ago and I still have a little rainwater in my hosepipe. 

I’m not using it in the front garden because I don’t want to have to shout, “it’s not what you think”, every time someone passes.

We have also blown our commitments on climate change and it looks like the climate is fighting back. Yes, there was a similar drought in 1976 when the concentration of carbon in the atmosphere was 331.92 parts per million as opposed to 403.3 last year. 

However many of us have a nagging fear that this drought is a sign of much worse to come, as the best climate modelling we have suggests.

Masters of nature will fight a losing battle against the birds and bees

The extreme fluctuations in the weather — an endless winter followed by a seemingly endless summer — are likely connected to the erratic position of the so-called jet stream air mass because of the rising temperature of the Arctic.

So what is the Government doing?

Government TDs are this week spending their summer’s evenings trying to bring into law a new Heritage Bill to damage our wildlife by extending permission to burn vegetation in the month of March and to cut roadside hedgerows in the month of August.

The main reason being put forward for this senseless change is road safety. As Danny Healy-Rae put it on Tuesday, “your eyes would be picked out” by over-hanging branches on country roads. This is pure nonsense. 

Cutting dangerous over-hanging branches is specifically allowed under Section 40 of the Wildlife Act.

The Heritage Bill 2016 was first proposed to allow an extension of the cutting of all hedgerows, until an opposition amendment passed to confine it to roadside hedgerows. 

This makes clear that road safety was not originally behind the bill though it is being used as an excuse to pass it.

What is most worrying is the impulse behind this bill; to be the master of nature. This is a distant echo of the psychology of the rural gun lobby in the US. 

It comes from an understanding of nature as a dangerous wilderness which must be controlled. Sadly, the wilderness is seen as endless and indestructible, as if there was anyone were still rolling west in a wagon.

The wagons are now cars, which make us masters of our domains. They must be facilitated at all costs.

“August is a busy farming month with many farmers harvesting crops, spreading soil nutrients and transporting livestock therefore needing access to roads,” the Irish Farmers’ Association’s Special Areas of Conservation project team leader, Padraic Joyce, told a Dáil committee on the Heritage Bill.

Addressing the same committee, the Irish Wildlife Trust’s Padraic Fogarty described August as a “crucial” month for birds as they nest, shelter and find food. He said an extension of hedgerow cutting through August would be “devastating”.

Birdwatch Ireland’s research shows that 5% of yellowhammer nests are still active in hedgerows in August, which means they have unfledged young still in them. 

Yellowhammers are in danger of extinction here, having suffered a 90% collapse in their populations in less than two decades. 

There is no evidence to support Danny Healy-Rae’s contention this week that no bird is fool enough to nest beside a road for fear of having its feathers blown off and being left shivering in its skin.

Meanwhile the cry of the curlew, symbolic of this country as much as Sally O’Brien in that old Guinness advertisement, may soon be heard no more, having suffered an 80% collapse in population since Sally’s 1970s heyday. 

Burning upland vegetation in March may finish them off, along with other upland birds.

Birdwatch Ireland has lobbied the Government to commission research on egg-laying dates before conducting their two-year pilot of this disastrous Bill. The current Minister, Josepha Madigan, has not even met them.

Josepha Madigan
Josepha Madigan

We’re not just talking of birds, of course, but of entire eco-systems, including pollinators, bats, butterflies and mammals. Our hedgerows mostly date from the 1700s but some are medieval. 

They were planted by our ancestors to mark territory and confine livestock and crops but they have become the only wildlife habitats left on intensive farms.

The English may have taken our trees but they couldn’t take our hedgerows. Research in similar British hedgerows showed them sustaining over 2,000 different species.

They are a pain to maintain, however, and many are so far degraded that they are no more than a line of trees. Fencing is cheaper and easier. 

What you are looking at here, yet again, is the vital importance of changing farm payments to properly reward farmers who undertake this conservation work on our behalf.

As Sinn Féin’s Peadar Tobin said this week in the Dáil, the extended burning and cutting in the Heritage Bill creates a “false dichotomy” between nature and farmers: it is not going to stack up to “a hill of beans” for struggling farmers but will certainly destroy habitat and sustenance for our country’s biodiversity.

There is, however, a lobby of big farmers with maintenance contractors who want to fill a gap in their schedules in August. Fine Gael always sides with big farmers and — to their shame — Fianna Fáil is showing a willingness to facilitate them.

The Government wants a symbolic win in the contest between masters of the universe and the birds and the bees. 

There would seem to be no contest until nature is a desert which fails to feed us and the only weapon we’re left with is an empty hosepipe.


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