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, wisdom born out of 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.

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Ethical Carnivore - Louise Gray

I loved this book -  Ethical Carnivore  by Louise Gray - it got better the further in and I found myself thinking about it quite a lot.  Louise comes across as a kind, determined, vulnerable woman who wants to be honest about what she does.  She eats meat - so what is the honest thing?  Kill it for yourself and don't hide behind plastic packaging and anonymous looking chunks of pink stuff.

Louise comes from a farming/shooting background and so the idea of picking up a gun isn't totally new, although it seems her brothers took to it as children more than she did.  When she made this decision to spend a year only eating meat she killed herself, at least she had her dad to teach her how to handle a gun and take her out to shoot rabbits, I wouldn't have a clue who to ask.

The first chapter is less strong than the rest, it feels a bit - well- shaky.  She finds it hard to manage the gun and can't dispatch a rabbit without tears.  I probably wouldn't have started this way, but her vulnerability comes across straight away, and that is good. She isn't a campaigning, tattooed activist who lies in front of lorries, she is a normal, sensitive westerner who has been removed from the reality of food and now has decided to face up to what it means to eat meat.  I liked that - I identified with her fears and squeamishness, I couldn't have done what she did.

She delves headlong into abattoirs and intensive chicken farms, eating road kill, going on fishing trawlers and breaking the necks of roosters.  Eventually she tackles shooting a deer. She visits farms where animals are simply units to be processed and others where they are loved until they die humanely. She describes being in a large abattoir as being in hell and was deeply traumatised.  Addressing the question of whether CCTV should be be installed in them she says no - no one should see what happens, it is like being in a vile dream. But how else do you despatch enough animals to supply the ever growing demand for meat in this country? Around 8 billion animals (livestock and fish) are killed each year in the UK for food. Can that really be true?  This figure is taken from a vegan website which says:

The total number of animals killed in British slaughterhouses in 2013 was over a billion.
This included 9.8 million pigs, nearly 15 million sheep, 18 million turkeys, 14 million ducks, over 945 million chickens and 2.6 million cattle. Add to that 4.5 billion fish and 2.6 billion shellfish you have a total of over 8 billion animals killed in the UK each year.
This equates to around 22 million animals slaughtered every day; 919,000 an hour; 15,000 per minute and 255 every second.

I was particularly interested in reading this book after making "Would You Eat An Alien?" for Radio 4 - a whacky look at the intelligence and sentience of farm animals.  It was such an eye-opening set of programmes to be involved with and taught me a lot.  We are strange creatures, we don't treat chickens as real birds, or cows as real mammals - somehow farmed animals are different to their wild relations.  But of course they are not.  Maternal and social bonds are just as strong, the ability to feel pain and fear is just as strong - but it is far easier if we don't acknowledge it.  If we had to kill pigs or cows ourselves I am sure most would be vegetarian pretty quickly.  But we don't and we absorb the Old MacDonald farm image and turn a blind eye to reality.

I went to see Louise give a talk at the Birdfair this year - she asked if the audience would rather be a chicken or a pheasant? Clever and brave for that venue - the majority of whom would be opposed to pheasant shooting. Most of the people there, and I am sure more generally, would choose to be a pheasant - given than it lives a wild life until shot (or run over or eaten by a fox).  Surely better than living for only 6 weeks, bloated and full of chemicals, hardly able to stand and never seeing daylight. She was courageous, polite and definitely, in my opinion, held the moral argument. There is no doubt pheasants - agree with their existence in the UK or not, have a better life than your average broiler.

Therefore I applaud Louise - she didn't pretend everything was fine - she found out for herself, carried on eating meat but did the honest thing and killed it with her own hands.  And the surprising thing is - she carries on trying to eat only the animals she kills, which has had a drastic effect on how much meat she eats.  She now eats mainly vegetarian food with occasional meat thrown in.  That seems to be a very healthy and sensible way to live. We all know the dangers of too much rich, animal fat.  Many people in the West overdose on protein they don't need (my family for a start!)

Well done Louise - well written, direct from the heart, not one ounce of preachiness and its challenging. Its a great read. And if I was asked round to Louise's for a squirrel supper, I think I would look forward to it very much.

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.