Another Life: Looking after natural world is ever more complex task

Environmental Protection Agency’s latest report makes for a very sobering read

The freshwater pearl mussel, which has been singled out for special threat of extinction. Illustration: Michael Viney

The freshwater pearl mussel, which has been singled out for special threat of extinction. Illustration: Michael Viney

 

On a striped green hillside dotted with sheep and studded with boulders from the ice age, there can seem few pressing issues of environmental change. We nearly got a gold mine, we nearly had a row of turbines, but neither venture came to pass. The rams are out with the ewes again, and hares still duck beneath the fences. Only the rain from the ocean carries dark and weighty omens .

Beyond the hill, our natural world compares well with many other countries. But there’s still plenty wrong – critically so, in how we treat our rivers and lakes – and much that could get worse.

In this week’s big report from the state’s independent watchdog and activist, the Environmental Protection Agency, the assessment of natural affairs is a model of expert concern.

It follows what’s called the “ecosystem approach” but treats the whole nation as the habitat. Everything sustaining its life, both human and non-human, belongs to its agenda. The modern pollutions of air, land and water grow ever more complex. Even hospitals, flushing antibiotics into our rivers and water systems, are, it seems, part of the problem. And the more we understand the ecology of our natural world, the more needs to be done to keep it healthy.

We have come a long way in public understanding of biodiversity and its value to human society – a Heritage Council survey this year found a shift in public awareness from 18 per cent to 31 per cent since 2010, much of it from Dubliners and other urbanites.

In the wider countryside, change still has to cope with “landowner dissatisfaction with biodiversity regulation”. It’s not that long since “Dúchas – the Heritage Service” was set up in 1996 by the OPW in an outgoing public promotion. It had its own little fleet of brightly logoed vans that many farmers hated the sight of.

Political attitudes

A genuine concern for the natural world runs through the EPA’s new report. Its tone contrasts with the political attitudes that, for decades, have treated conservation as a burden imposed by the EU. Similar concerns, I know, sustain the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS), tucked away in the rag-bag of the Department of Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht, Rural Environment and Rural Affairs under Minister Heather Humphreys. A transfer to the EPA would give it a proper and welcome home.

The quality of Ireland’s fresh water looms large in EPA priorities, given the startling rate of loss of our most pristine bits of rivers – down to 21 stretches now, from 575 in the late 1980s and 82 only a decade ago.

With no improvement in major rivers for the past six years – more than half of their pollution still caused by farming and national plans for thousands more cattle (all this, of course, before Brexit) – Ireland still faces unresolved EU complaints or infringement proceedings. Sluggish efforts to fulfil the EU’s Water Framework Directive have quite failed their target.

A new approach “aims to connect people and communities with their local stream, river, lake, spring or coastal water. It integrates all water types and relevant disciplines, including social science, and establishes linkages with biodiversity, flood mitigation and water quality.” A prototype river-basin management plan will soon be put out for consultation at the end of this year.

For the freshwater pearl mussel, singled out for special threat of extinction, the worst dangers have come from silt and fertiliser from major forestry or wind-farm development. But there are now several community-backed projects, half-funded by the EU Life programme, with better farm management and conservation of the pearl mussel as priorities.

Showpieces

EU Life projects in the Burren and on the Aran Islands have helped to integrate the working lives of small farmers with protected areas of countryside. But beyond such showpieces of the natural world lies the wider small-farm countryside.

Most of the uplands have healed from the disastrous overgrazing that scarred them through the late 20th century. Now, it’s undergrazing of farmland, or even its abandonment, swamping precious plant life with bracken and scrub, that worries some conservationists.

Much is now tagged as “HNV” or land of “high natural value”, still with unfertilised grassland, scraggy hedgerows and unintended ponds. The new report speaks of reward for “ecosystem services” in water and habitat protection, nature-friendly farming and planting a few trees – the sort of thing one hoped was flourishing under REPS (the old Rural Environment Protection Scheme) and for which the new grant schemes of GLAS are surely designed.

Good things are happening, slowly, but two of the report’s editors, Brendan Wall and Dr Jonathan Denham, voice a warning: “Our national values system,” they write, ” has evolved to a stage that sees conspicuous consumption as socially desirable. Moreover, the rise of individualism is dictating behaviours that are not always in the best interests of society or the environment. This is not a sustainable pathway for any nation. ”

Michael Viney’s Reflections on Another Life, a selection of columns from the past four decades, is available from irishtimes.com/irishtimesbooks

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