Sunday, 7 August 2016

The Four Relationships

The devastating news about the number of breeding curlews in Ireland has been difficult to take.  120 pairs left in the whole of the country.  This year there is only one pair breeding in County Sligo,  a rugged county of 2000 sq km of mountains, bogs and wet meadows.  It should be curlew heaven.  There maybe two pairs in the adjacent Country Roscommon. Ireland is a country that used to have many thousands of breeding birds.  And it is not just curlews that are slipping over the edge into oblivion.  Corncrakes have already gone apart from some remote outposts in the west.  Lapwings are in freefall.  There is a decline in birds throughout Europe, but Ireland seems to fare the worst.  We are watching the extinction of a beautiful, elegant bird for no other reason than a western lifestyle that is all about consumption. Our desire for lots of cheap everything is satieated by economic and farming systems based on bigger, better, faster all the ime.

So here we go again - the system is screwed so what can we do?  Well, we can try to do the right thing for ourselves.

It seems to me that there are four relationships we must have in balance to live full, healthy, flourishing lives, and to allow other life on earth to thrive alongside us.  They are (1) our relationship with ourselves, (2) with God (whatever that term means to you), (3) with each other and (4) with the earth. As individuals, it seems to me that we are like the circle of a Celtic cross. The circle repersents the essence of who we are, and it is kept in shape by four arms pulling with equal tension - the four relationships


No one relationship should be allowed to distort the roundness - if one relationship becomes dominant then the  circle will go out of shape and become contorted.  Keeping these four relationships in balance is essential. If they are not balanced we see religious extremism as the relationship with God becomes all consuming.  We wage war/fight/hurt when the relationship with each other is weak.  We become greedy or self harming when we neglect ourselves.  And the earth - what about that forgotten, neglected relationship with the earth?  The one relationship that is so often taken for granted?   Well, ecosystems are damaged, biodiversity thinned, animals treated with cruelty and other forms of life are viewed as merely a means to an end, namely food or products.

Four relationships - four essential bonds that keep the world and ourlseves in harmony.  Easy to preach isn't it -  hard to do when families need feeding, money if tight, we need to get around and we want a high standard of life with a rich diversity of food and abundant energy.  Keeping the realtionship with the earth in balance is as hard, if not harder, as maintaining the balance of the others.

The problem is all of them require sacrifice - a word that is so neglected today when we are told we can have it all - as long as we can pay for it, or borrow the money.  If the world's religions have one huge job to do it is to remind us that life involves self-sacrifice. All of them have times of abstinence built into their teachings, often on a yearly cycle.  These are times when we are asked to be restrained and to contemplate.  These times of less are then interspersed with festivals and times of abundance. Somehow that seems a balanced and healthy approach.

I don't want Christmas to start in September or Easter in January.  I don't want organic mangoes all year round.  I don't want cheap meat at the cost of suffering for millions of animals.

And what about curlews? They are disappearing as land is converted into intensive agriculture to provide cheap food, and 50% of it is thrown away.

So curlews are the collateral damage of a society that has become distorted.  We don't leave them, and so many other creatures, room to live and just be.  All of the land is for us and our "needs" though it is hard to believe that this is the only way for humanity to survive.

I leave with the wisest of farmers - Wendell Berry -

The care of the Earth is our most ancient and most worthy, and after all our most pleasing responsibility. To cherish what remains of it and to foster its renewal is our only hope. 



Monday, 20 June 2016

Changing the Approach

About 2 weeks after getting back from the Curlew Walk I was off again to the NW of Scotland to go on a trip to Priest Island, one of the Summer Isles, to help ring storm petrels.  I did it last year for the first time and loved it, so as the offer was there again it is just too good to miss. I'm not a qualified ringer so I do the ferrying of the bags with birds in them from the mist nets to the processing tent where the birds are weighed, measured and have rings put on their legs.  They are then released again unharmed and firmly recorded for the future.  All good data to have to monitor the Priest Island population - and a great sailing expedition with good friends.  A couple of things struck me from both the Curlew Walk and the ringing trip.

Firstly, both curlews and storm petrels are species that no one has a problem with.  There are no reasons for anyone to shoot them, trap them or try to get rid of them in any way- they have no impact on our lives other than to enhance the world we live in.  They don't eat our crops or fish stocks, they don't spread diseases or attack us - they are safe wildlife to be involved with.  And so the conversations I had on Priest over the last couple of days were about birds and nature - general chat about the natural world with no stress or controversy.  I couldn't help but think how different it would be if we had been ringing birds of prey, or I done a walk across the British Isles for badgers or hen harriers, because then the feel of the activities would have been very different.  For many and varied reasons there are certain species that polarize  opinion and then the temperature of the debate rises and the language becomes far more divisive.

If you are not aware of the hen harrier controversy, some grouse moors illegally kill birds of prey (and legally control other predators heavily too) to enhance grouse numbers so that a surplus can be shot for money.  The illegal persecution of hen harriers in particular has been devastating and very few birds, if any, breed in England now.  I am not going into the details of this, suffice to say that it is illegal in the UK to kill any birds of prey and those who do should be subject to the full force of the law.  End of.  However this illegal activity has muddied the waters for the grouse industry in general and there is now a faction of conservationists who want to get rid of grouse shooting completely, objecting to any of the other activities associates with it, such as heather burning and draining of the uplands.  Again, this is not the place to go into the pros and cons, but the division that now exists between grouse moors and some conservationists is so vitriolic it can verge on threatening.

There is similar heightened tension between conservationists who want to protect badgers and farmers who want to control them to stop the spread of TB (and the jury is out on the efficacy of a cull).  Badgers can also be a problem for ground nesting birds in some areas, but there is a feeling that any control is wrong for a faction of conservationists.

Just as I was leaving for Priest the Labour MP Jo Cox was brutally murdered.  It was a shocking and vile attack by someone who seems to be deranged.  I was away for a lot of the aftermath talk, but it seems that the tone of the in/out EU debate may have created an atmosphere within which those who are liable to flip can do so.  I am NOT saying it was causal, what I am saying is that when divisions run so deep and discussions are so dogged by nastiness, then the atmosphere is one in which extreme views can find a purchase.  I may be wrong, and I sincerely hope I am, but the tone of some of the controversies in conservation are unnessecarily nasty.  Bully boy tactics on both sides increase feelings verging on hatred and I have been amazed at the mis-information that is out there, fueling the fires.

What I would like to see is calm, rational debate.  We have to be measured and be able to see another's point of view, without vilifying.  We don't all have to look alike, behave the same and create the world in our own image.  There is room for difference and compromise.  If the heat is not taken out then someone, somewhere may get hurt.  And while people fight and blame, the only thing that loses out is the wildlife. it is time for a change of tone in politics and conservation.








Friday, 20 May 2016

Day 30- Curlew Walk

Sorry it has been so long since the last post but time and internet connection together are rare and there always seems to be a lot of correspondence to catch up on too.  In summary, I've walked through Wales and am now in the Peak District - home territory. The rain is falling and the sky grey, unusual for me as I've had amazing weather for most of the time.
I have been trying to summarise how I felt about the last section of walking, and if you read my last blogs about Ireland you will have picked up a despair about the lack of public and political will to protect the nature of Ireland. That continues as I received an email this morning from a ranger saying the interim government will de-list another 46 peat bogs opening them to turf cutting. At least one has a pair of curlews on it.
It struck me that Ireland views its bog as something from a shameful past.  Ireland wants to move on and leave behind the "man of the bog" image of old, and step into a Europe without the old-country burden.  To be called "bog man" is an insult, it was a place where life was hard and the land poor.  The raised bog is a place to dump rubbish or chop up and throw in the fire.  Better to strip it, build new houses with immaculate lawns where old cottages used to be, and leave the past behind. Along with that attitude go the folktales and legends of the past too.  I found it hard to extract any old tales of the country, about curlews or anything else.  But an old priest in a home did tell me it was a shame to lose the bogs because when he was a parish priest They were great places to go out in the middle of and scream.
Another problem Ireland's wildlife faces is a lack of wildlife groups. In England we have organizations dedicated to butterflies, bees, mammals, trees, plants etc. They don't exist in S Ireland. So the people pressure is less and the ancient links to the past and the wisdom-filled tales about life disappearing.
Contrast that with West Wales which holds onto its past with a fierce grip and you have 2 very different mindsets.  West Wales is proud of being an outpost on the shores of  a changing world.  It wants to celebrate its mysticism as well as its language and Welsh is commonly heard.  And wildlife is woven through Welsh tales.  Of course I'm generalising to a huge degree, but the land is not just a resource but a place for souls to connect over time and through generations, passing on language, legends and a desire to never forget.
So a very brief summary of the difference I felt between Ireland and Wales.  So much more to say of course - but that will come later.  Next blog - England.

Sunday, 8 May 2016

Cultural curlews

Last night was very special, dinner in the home of good friends Tim and Pauline Higgins who moved to the Llyn peninsula a couple of years ago. One of the guests was a guy, Dafydd David-Hughes who runs a round house.  Dafydd is a story teller, you can't help but be mesmerised by his voice and ability to draw you in, no matter what he is talking about.  It is an art. I'll be presenting the curlew in myth, legend and folklore tonight - come along if you can.



Monday, 2 May 2016

Curlews caught in the middle.

Today is my last "work" day in Ireland before I get to Dublin, apart from a radio interview tomorrow for Mooney Goes Wild.  As you can tell if you've been following me, bogs have been a big feature of this part of the Midlands.  Last night someone challenged me by saying - why is it different to what you did to get coal?  The industrialization of England destroyed vast areas and opencast mines in S Wales are just as bad to look at. An argument that needs addressing because it is true. There are the obvious answers - such as times have changed - really changed.  We know much more about how our activities affect the planet - and we have not just local but international obligations to protect the environment. So the milieu in which we make decisions is totally different.  What seemed a good use of resources in the past has shifted as the atmosphere fills with greenhouse gases and the diversity of life diminishes. Just because we did it then doesn't mean we have the right to carry on.

So how will Ireland get its fuel if peat burning stops? (Which I doubt very much!) Gas is a more energy efficient fossil fuel than peat, by a very long way, and alternative sources are emerging all the time.  I really don't like the term "green energy" it is a green-washing phrase.  There is no such thing  as a totally environmentally friendly way to produce power - they all have damaging effects - no free lunch - but some are certainly better than others.  Wind farms and solar farms, wave power and barrages come with their own baggage, but it is lighter than fossil fuels if dealt with well, but not cost free. Lots of people are working on this and I know it is difficult, but Ireland could be the leading light for Europe by laying aside peat and turning to the future, which will no doubt be a moisture of many forms of energy depending on location.  Peat is a fuel of the past, and that is a large part of the problem - the past speaks loud in Ireland.

This goes to the heart of the problem.  Tradition is a powerful force, it is linked in to a memory of days gone by when people cut their turf by hand and worked the land with a countryman's heart (and it was usually men). Many, many people will tell you their parents and grandparents knew the wildlife and understood the seasons in a way that is alien today.  This understanding was laced with folktales and old stories about the way nature informs and warns humanity.  In a talk I gave yesterday one middle aged woman said when her mother heard a curlew she would go around the house waving a goose feather  (used as feather dusters) - as the call of the curlew was associated with the souls of drowned sailors.  Others nodded - they remembered that too. Help waft the souls out of the house and on towards heaven. The curlew, the waterways and the bog were interlinked. And the image of the men hand cutting turf on their patch, labouring away, stacking the "black butter" that Seamus Heaney refers to - "melting and opening underfoot," is alive and thriving in the Irish imagination. Peat is part of Irelad's memory but the memory of curlews is slipping away so fast, and if they are remembered there is no political purchase attached to them.

I remember traditional peat cutting well.  I have strong memories of visiting my uncle and aunt in Letterkenny in the 1960s and going with my dad and uncle to see turf cutting on the slopes of Muckinish Mountain. I remember the men bent over and the skill of slicing the turf with strange looking spades.  I remember them chatting next to the neatly stacked sods and then going to the pub for a Guinness and my dad saying to me later - try to remember this, it won't last for ever.

My dear uncle has gone, and his plot on Muckinish.  Modern Ireland is not like that anymore.  Few cut by hand, it is done by a machine now. That link to working the land by hand is far less, but I can totally understand the family traditions stretching back through  generations.  Those are important memories, and if properly regulated the individual plots still have a place  in Ireland.  The problem is,
this has been scaled up out of all proportion from a family heating their home to a nation feeding power stations.  They are not the same thing.  The family stack is not the same as the trucks of peat railroaded out to be burnt in furnaces.

Yesterday I went out early to see some bog that still had a pair of curlews on it.  They were hanging on in a small section with peat diggers closing in fast from both sides.  Their call was tinged, for me, with desperation.  There is no way many of these birds that are settled in bogs that are continuing to be cut will survive the disturbance as the machines close in.

So Ireland has to decide what is important and what they want to remember and what they are happy to let go. Peat has a powerful place in Irish identity, it is political dynamite - people will loudly and vigorous defend this right to cut turf. But the curlew part of the tradition, the bird that serenaded the turf cutter, has faded away.  Does Ireland have a place for curlews for future generations? If so, how can they be treasured as a part of Irish tradition as much as cutting turf? In this land where tradition and modernity sit side by side, curlews are squeezed out. They are the forgotten part of the past, can they find their way back into the  lives and loves of Ireland again? If so, they do have a future.





Saturday, 30 April 2016

Climate Change Curlews

The Shannon Callows are fresh and green - wide flat fields of grass and herbs border the river Shannon between Lough Ree and Lough Derg in central Ireland - an area of roughly 30 sq miles.  Here the river seems to relax and spread over the saucer -shaped basin that is the Midlands - the soft lapping of the water seranaded by songbirds and the lowing of cattle.  The traditional blessing -  "May the rain fall softly upon your fields" - seems to fit the Callows well.  In some ways the Shannon and its floodplain is the Irish equivalent of the Nile, the river is the source of life. The yearly winter floods spread nutrients over the fields and in the summer the  grasslands are alive with insects feeding off wild flowers and herbs and cows feeding off the grass.  This is rich dairy and beef country.   Shocking then that in this land of soft sediment and water there are only between 10 and 15 pairs of curlews, no one knows for sure, but not more than that.  Yet only 30 years ago they would have been so common they would have been jostling for space to nest.

The Callows should resound to the trilling of the curlew - the air filled with its lyrical vibrations, spreading out over the plain like ripples over water.  Yet over the last couple of days I haven't heard a single call.  I saw one bird flying low and cowed, but it was gone quickly - hopefully back to a nest on the island of Inishee in the middle of the river.  It somehow didn't seem like a typical curlew, usually so ready to protest at any unwelcome presence - this one was covert, trying not to be noticed.

Curlews are nesting now and here they don't seem to make a fuss if they think danger is near, they skulk silently away, keeping a low profile. Someone suggested this might be learned behaviour over the last years as numbers fell. Keep quiet, keep out of sight.  In the days when there were so many of them they would rise together from the nests dotted through the fields and mob any crow or fox - but now they are loners.

BirdWatch Ireland are making great efforts to help them - and the other waders plus the corncrakes -that should be so common.  Inishee Island in the Shannon is now a fortress, fenced off by a powerful electric fence that keeps the foxes, badgers and pine martens, which swim over from the mainland, from feasting on the nests. It is on Inishee that the last corncrakes were making a comeback, benefiting from the peace, but last year was the first year when no corncrakes called in the Callows.  It looks like they have gone, and it could be climate change beginning to bite.

Farmers here are used to dealing with flooding during the summer months in one year out of every five or six, but since 2000 the Shannon Callows have flooded badly in the summer every year. The water inundates the breeding grounds and the corncrake has been drowned out.  It affects all the birds - and the farmers who may lose their hay.

2 pairs of curlews are nesting on Inishee - but at least they are still just about there - hanging on - and hopefully there will be no flooding this year between April and August.  Only time will tell but it has been one hell of a wet year again.

I am coming towards the end of this first stage and have travelled down the centre of Ireland - following the loughs and waterways of this magical inland treasure. Most of it appears peaceful and calm, if you shield your eyes from the horrors of the stripped bogs and vast tracts of  uniform forestry of a monoculture of Sitka spruce.  But it is clear curlews are almost non existant, just a handful of pairs dotted around here and there - trying to breed but battling so many problems.  They seem to me to be like stars shining in the dark sky.  That might sound overly dramatic - but if you look at the Irish landscape through curlew eyes, it is hard to draw another conclusion.

I have met wonderful people - dedicated to helping the curlew survive this time of annihilation - they too are stars shining in the midst of the darkness of lack of awareness.  I have picked up a kind of fatalistic approach quite a few times - "sad, but isn't that just the way of things these days - what can you do?"  Curlews here need people to first of all be aware and then to care enough to act - that is what is needed - then they may recover.





Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Curlew Walk a week in

It's hard to get both wifi and time in the same place to write, so little chance to blog, though I have been posting bits and pieces on Facebook and Twitter.

It's Thursday and off to Banagher soon to give a talk and meet people working on the Shannon Callows - where curlews were once common but no longer.  And that is the story everywhere I have been. I have just given an interview to a local paper in Mullingar, West Meath.  The reporter was an elderly man and I played him the sound of a curlew's bubbling call.  His eyes filled with tears and he asked me to turn it off.  It had been so long since he had heard one - and yes I was right, he hadn't yet noticed it slipping away.  Same old story.  Where's is this Irish Gra (said graw and means love) for the land that keeps being mentioned - this innate love of the landscape upon which generations of Irish have laboured? There is a love of farming - but not of the land that is farmed, and that is a crucial difference.  There is almost a violent relationship with the earth here - thrashed hedges, stripped bogs, fast and furious cutting of grass for silage, intense stocking.  The corncrake has gone - the curlew is hot on its heels.  I doubt there are even 160 pairs left.

It wouldn't be true to say no one cares, the people I've talked to do care when they hear the figures and the curlew song, but they haven't noticed it going. And whether there is any will to do what it takes to bring wildlife back to the fields is another matter.  If they are paid - then perhaps - money talks a lot and it is hard to make a living as a farmer I know.  There are payments through what is called the Glas (pronounced Gloss, means green) scheme whereby farmers get payment for wildlife on the farm if they don't plough/cut/chop/thrash in the sensitive season.  But is that enough without other management and control?

The question I am struggling with today is. - is it worth it?  There is so much damage and lack of awareness that it will take a huge amount of effort to get people to act - and if they do then it will take another huge amount of predator control and hanbitiat management to bring the few pairs left back to healthy numbers.  Is that right?  Should public money be spent on carnage for crows, foxes and anything else that predates ground nesting birds?  They are native species too that farming has allowed to increase.  And where would the money come from?  Curlews can't be sold and traded to make money - so all you get is a bubbling bird at the end of it all.  The people here have to decide what they want.

I gave a talk to a class of 17 year olds studying agriculture and the environment for the equivalent of A level in a rural town called Ballinamore.  Not one had even heard of a curlew, yet alone seen one or knew what it sounded like.  The teacher had heard of it but wanted to see a picture.  These young people are the first generation to not hear a corncrake and the last to be able to hear a curlew.  But they will have to be quick.

A few more days left to talk to more people involved and get their take.

Ireland - the land that is fast becoming the land where no birds sing.