Change, especially when incrementally small and over a long period, is often imperceptible and we occasionally need someone to ring the alarm bells and alert us to dangers. Charles Handy, the business/management guru of the 1980s, in his book The Age of Unreason told the parable of a frog being put in a pot of cold water which was heated so gradually that the frog became accustomed to each increase in temperature until the water reached boiling point and the frog died. He used the story to highlight that people very often do not realise their world is changing and that unless they react and take charge the consequences may be drastic.
Pádraig Fogarty in his recently published book, Whitted Away, Ireland’s Vanishing Nature, is the one ringing the alarm bells on behalf of the Irish natural and environmental heritage: “A growing mountain of scientific research is demonstrating that we are in the midst of an ecological catastrophe, principally from the twin evils of climate change and biodiversity loss” and he contends that our view of Ireland as a green country is misinformed – and as one reads the book one cannot but sadly agree.
Many of our historic traditional fisheries have simply disappeared. Who has even heard of the pilchard fisheries at Baltimore which once employed 2,000 people on a seasonal basis? Herring have all but disappeared from the north Irish Sea and the Donegal cod fisheries are a thing of the past yet regularly we will hear statements about our “sustainable” fish stocks meaning that present fishing levels will not deplete fish stocks further but such statements disguise or ignore the fact that present stocks are only a miniscule fraction of what they were previously. Other countries have managed to revive fish stocks so with good management it is possible that Irish stocks could recover also.
While one might expect our national parks to lead the way in good environmental management this is not the case. Rhododendron ponticum continues to be a major problem in the Killarney National Park. Wicklow Mountains National Park is the largest expanse of ground over 300 metres in the country and while we may admire its beauty we seldom stop and think how unnatural an environment it is. The mountains were once covered in trees and it is unnatural that they have now become a monoculture of heather. Present policies are to maintain it in this manner, preserving a landscape which has already been damaged and continues to be damaged by overstocking of sheep with numbers driven ever upward by per-head state subsidies. Yes, the state pays people to put sheep on the mountains knowing they will ruin it – sheepwrecked! Even in 1928 J. W. Synge wrote of Connemara National Park, “The absence of trees is a sad feature of a Connemara landscape. Seen from a distance the very bareness of mountain slopes makes them look savage and, indeed, almost repellent in a hard light.” However, the author – he really does come up with gems of optimism – describes it as “not a paradise lost but a paradise waiting to happen”. Glenveagh National Park continues to have difficulties with the reintroduction of the Golden Eagle, has no management plan and illegal turf extraction seems to be allowed to continue unchecked within the park boundaries. On the other hand, The Burren National Park is very much a success story, a wonderful example of farming for conservation and the only one which could be described as well managed.
The decline or loss of some species will always lead to headline news – the red squirrel or the corncrake, for example – but the author says the list of lost plants and animals runs to 115 while, perhaps more alarmingly, there is a general decline in the numbers of all wildlife with the World Wildlife Fund and the Zoological Society of London reporting that there has been a 58% fall in population of all species between 1970 and 2012. Alongside this unnatural loss of numbers there are several sanctioned culls of wild animals. Badgers are culled to prevent the spread tuberculosis in cattle – approximately 7,000 each year, though 80% – 90% of the culled badgers have subsequently been found to be free of TB. Pike are culled are culled to allow other fish species build up numbers; there is a bounty on foxes; deer are culled and there is a call for a cull of seals.
Ireland’s food products are promoted as being “green”, that they come from a green land, are produced by “green” farming yet 47% of our rivers, 57% of our lakes ad 55% of our estuaries do not meet the requirements of good ecological status and over half of this pollution is attributed to agriculture. It is interesting that the body which promotes the green image of Ireland, An Bord Bia, received government funding of €32.2 million in 2014 while the body entrusted to actually make the country green, National Parks and Wildlife Service, received €14.3 million that same year. There seems to be a disparity between promoting the message and actually creating the reality of a green Ireland. It would seem that the billions of euro paid to Irish farmers to protect the environment have not been well spent. The blame does not lie with the farmer – certainly, not entirely with them – as many farmers, many passionate environmentalists themselves, view the approach of the Department of Agriculture as poorly thought out and, regularly, detrimental to the environment. They will be required to clear corners of scrub, to drain low-lying wet patches so as to bring all land into production though they see that by so doing they are removing a diversity of habitat which would have accommodated a diversity of wildlife.
There have been a number of success stories: Lough Boora Parkland in Co. Offaly was once a Bord na Mona worked bog but has now been allowed to return to nature. A survey in May 2012 by the National Biodiversity Data Centre identified and counted 946 different species – more than were counted on The Burren in a similar exercise in the following year. There are other Bold na Mona bogs which could be similarly allowed to return to nature – it could be the largest habitat restoration ever seen.
The book is well written, well organised and deeply engaging. It is one of those books which certainly gives cause for thought and it would be of great benefit to our political decision makers, and to the environment, if they each read it.
This book provides a reality check for all who are interested in the Irish environment – a very startling reality check – but we should, as the author does, not think of the situation as a paradise lost but as a paradise waiting to happen.
[Whittled Away, Ireland’s Vanishing Nature, Pádraig Fogarty, The Collins Press, Cork, 2017, Hardback, 360 pages, €20, ISBN: 978-1-84889-310-8]
The book’s title, by the way, comes from a Irish Government Report of June 1969: “Ireland’s heritage is being steadily whittle away by human exploitation, pollution and other aspects of modern development. This could represent a serious loss to the nation.