Friday, 25 November 2016

Green Ireland?

“Ireland's natural beauty is world-renowned. Glorious beaches, vast national parks, dramatic landscapes and interesting wildlife all make it the ideal destination for the nature enthusiast” 

So says, the website of the National Tourism Development Agency for Ireland which sells hard the Emerald Isle’s image of a green, nature-filled land, removed from the worst of industrialised countries further east. But scratch just a little beneath the surface and the state of Ireland’s nature is far from healthy. From the mountains to the lowland bogs, from rivers to the coast, Ireland is losing wildlife and environmental quality at an alarming rate. This will come as a surprise to the many who still have an image of “old Ireland” a place of quiet certainty and wisdom born out of a life with the soil and nature.

In November 2016 the EPA, the Environmental Protection Agency for Ireland, published its latest assessment of the health of Ireland’s environment. Much of it makes disturbing reading.

“The majority of Ireland’s most important habitats are reported to be of poor or bad conservation status, including raised and blanket bogs, dune systems, oligotrophic lakes, fens and mires, natural grasslands and woodlands. Only 9 per cent of habitats listed under the Habitats Directive are considered to have favourable status.”

For example, the land of magnificent rivers and wetlands is polluted. The report states that the number of high quality rivers in Ireland has halved in the last 30 years. In the recent monitoring period between 2013 and 2015, only 21 sites were classified as the highest quality rivers compared with 575 between 1987 and 1990 and 82 between 2001 and 2003. Raised levels of nutrients such as phosphorus and nitrogen, mainly from agricultural run off and waste-water from human settlements, are the biggest cause of the pollution, and raw sewage was discharged into rivers at 43 separate locations. A European Commission report published in May 2015 stated that all of Ireland’s wetlands have an unfavourable conservation status and are continuing to deteriorate.

The Irish Environmental Protection Agency described the situation as “a critical issue for Ireland in the next decade.”
Ireland also has one of the highest green house gas emissions per head of population of any country in the world. 29% of the emissions come from agriculture, the single largest contributor, followed by energy generation and transport.

Given that Ireland’s gas emissions are on the rise, and that peat bogs are highly efficient carbon sinks, it is odd that three peat-fired power stations continue to be supported and subsidised by €150 million per year. The continued use of peat as a main fuel means Ireland will not reach its greenhouse gas reduction targets set by the EU. Laura Burke, Director General of the EPA:

“The EPA’s most recent greenhouse gas emission projections …projected that Ireland would not meet its 2020 target, with emission reductions likely to be in the range of 6-11% below 2005 levels. The greenhouse gas emission increases for 2015 in this report, suggest that achieving reductions, even at the lower end of that range, will be difficult.”

Legal, commercial peat-cutting to power Ireland’s 3 peat-fired power stations will continue until 2030. Private use of peat (used domestically and to sell on the black market) is a hotly contested issue. Some of it is harvested illegally on protected sites and angry, sometimes violent, conflicts arise when any moves are made to restrict or abolish turf cutting. Even on bogs protected by European law, turf cutting is proving hard to stop. Wildlife rangers and even the police are reticent about direct conflict and the practice goes on unchallenged. In fact the Environment Minister, Heather Humphries, has just announced the drafting of legislation to delist 46 bogs which have Natural Heritage Area status. NHAs are so called because they are recognised as valuable for wildlife. As the National parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) states: “NHAs are areas considered important for the habitats present or which holds species of plants and animals whose habitat needs protection.” Delisting them will remove any protection.

Ireland’s NPWS found that “no peatland type of priority importance in Ireland is in good conservation status.” Only 1% of the original extent of the great blanket bogs remains intact, the rest has been stripped for commercial and private peat extraction or drained and “improved” for agriculture.

For the wildlife that depends on these areas it is disastrous. The curlew, the most endangered bird in Ireland, is badly affected. 70% of the remaining 130 pairs nest on bogs, and each breeding season they return to find their nesting sites cut, burned and drained. The Irish government looks set to extend the burning of upland areas into March, when birds like curlew are returning to breed. For a bird so on the edge of survival this could be devastating. Population analysis shows that Curlew will be functionally extinct (no longer enough birds for a viable breeding population) in just 7 years.

Corn bunting - RSPB
Corncrake - Telegraph
The Curlew is not the only species in Ireland that is struggling to hang on. The EPA report highlights that out of 199 species of birds in Ireland 25 are considered to be in urgent need of conservation action. The corn bunting has already gone extinct, the corncrake, once widespread across the whole of Ireland, has been reduced to 183 calling males. 2016 saw the highest number of birds of prey shot or poisoned, including the endangered hen harrier. There are only 108 pairs left. Ireland could soon become the land where no birds sing. The report also states that more than a third of Irish bees, and 15% of water beetles, butterflies, dragonflies and damselflies are threatened.

Curlew - Wiki
Hen Harrier - RSPB
Ireland has gone through dramatic changes over the last 30 years, perhaps no more so than in the way farming is carried out. Agriculture, which was previously mixed and low intensity, has rapidly become highly intensive and specialised. Drainage of fields, increased use of fertiliser and the cutting of silage to feed the increasing number of cattle have resulted in widespread loss of habitat for wildlife, as well as increases in greenhouse gas emissions. The Celtic Tiger also took its toll, encouraging often unrestrained building on sensitive areas.

In many ways all this is counter to the true heart of Ireland where wildlife and landscape are intimately bound with creativity, tradition and folklore. Some of the most beautiful poetry and prose in Europe have sprung from the rootedness of the Irish psyche to its natural heritage. To see this disappear now is to lose more than just physical matter and living species. Perhaps a re-engagement of young Irish people with their landscape-literature will re-invigorate a respect for the natural world and forge a new identity where Ireland leads the way in Europe to a more holistic and greener future.

There is no doubt Ireland’s green image is tarnished, yet its natural beauty and unsullied image is used to attract millions of tourists each year. If the continued erosion of nature continues, the tourism industry will certainly suffer. The recent EPA report should raise serious concerns about how just how quickly this will happen.

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