Another Life: The bareness of Irish hills is an issue with all our rain

For years the EU’s farm payment schemes have conspired to keep upland fields bare and commonage hideously overgrazed

Eroded mountain peat. Drawing by Michael Viney

Eroded mountain peat. Drawing by Michael Viney

 

Breathing in, as I choose to imagine, great gulps of CO2 from over the sea, our hillside acre has reached a quite awesome peak of summer leaves. Everything is twice as tall, as fat and fecund, as I ever expected.

My morning excursion to the rain gauge confronts me with invading bracken almost as tall as I am and swathed in veils of cleavers. Great arcs of briars interweave between me and the apple trees. A line of birches, once a lacy and graceful outpost of our trees, has coarsened into a screen against the sky.

It seems unimaginable that the acre’s burgeoning biomass of leaves will, in due course, wither and fall into bare-branched decay, its carbon locked into soil. Allowing for our decades of hedging, planting and sowing, and the early loads of cow manure, I’m still struck by the sheer productivity of our little plot compared with the sheep-shorn baldness of the hillside.

The global CO2 greening of the planet is now falling back through shortages of water. But the bareness of Irish hills becomes an issue on an island prone to receiving far too much water, all at once, from the sky. The disastrous German floods poured down from a low range of mountains, their heights often forested but carved into steep and populated valleys. Most Irish heights, especially in the west, have little or nothing to soak up the rain.

For years the EU’s farm payment schemes have conspired to keep upland fields bare and the commonage, with lasting effect, so hideously overgrazed. To qualify for direct payment support the eligible hectares of land had to be kept grazeable and free from scrub.This meant grubbing out the clumps of gorse, willow and hawthorn growing on rough pasture.

Even lowland hedges were counted, if their base exceeded two metres from the centre, so that many farmers used mechanised flails to keep them narrow and barely alive.

Heavily fined

In 2013, Ireland was heavily fined by the European Commission for claiming “ineligible land”. Now, realities of climate change and its links to biodiversity are creeping into new policy. According to the Irish Farmers’ Journal and beginning in 2023, the Department of Agriculture “proposes to allow up to 30 per cent of a parcel [of land] to consist of features that may be beneficial to climate and biodiversity to be considered eligible”.

Minister for Agriculture Charlie McConalogue has, the journal says, assured farmers that scrub will be one of these features, but what constitutes scrub remains unclear. Teagasc, concerned at the abandonment of hill farms, has seen the upward spread of gorse as a deplorable consequence.

Like the dreams of furnishing hills with Scots pine and other native trees, the new licence for a small share of scrub comes decades too late. Intensifying, heatwave summers will hasten the toll of upland gorse and forest fires. They will erode the summits of blanket peat, opening them up to winter deluges that launch landslides and rush on to top up the lowland floods.

Such, at least, are the broodings of this elderly Cassandra, long augured in environmental warnings. In the view of a 1991 report to government, they were “without a technical remedy”.

Meanwhile, the national policy of this saucer of an island is concentrated at the other end: rain, having fallen, must be rushed into the sea. At the Irish Wildlife Trust, campaigning ecologist Padraic Fogarty has excoriated “the war on rivers” conducted by the Office of Public Works.

Drawing on the Arterial Drainage Act of 1945, the OPW declares itself obliged “to maintain all rivers, embankments and urban flood defences” it has ever worked on since. Thus, says Fogarty, it periodically sends heavy machinery back to 11,500km of rivers, “tearing out banks, trees and vegetation, destroying fish spawning beds and generally keeping rivers in a canal-like state”.

Storing water

Licensing OPW drainage works, says Fogarty, should pass to the National Park and Wildlife Service. And rather than rob rivers of their vast array of natural habitats, farmers should be paid for storing water on restored and rewilded river flood plains.

On my side of Connacht’s mountains it’s the many small, spate rivers that carry heavy rains to the sea. In the new issue of Irish Pages, the book-sized, Belfast-based literary journal, Mayo’s Sean Lysaght writes vividly of fly-fishing for white trout on a spate river in the bogs of Nephin.

“Over the years,” he notes, “the most violent spates have knocked big chunks of peat out of the river bank and have washed rubble, gravel and clay out of the lowest strata, where they had settled after the action of the glaciers.”

This offers the one premonitory note in an essay of shared delight, its defiance extra welcome in an issue of Irish pages on the theme of “the Anthropocene”.

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