Here's what biodiversity has done for us


ANOTHER LIFE:‘WHAT HAS BIODIVERSITY ever done for me?” The question chimed rhetorically at the end of a letter to this newspaper last Monday about the cost of saving Ireland’s last migrant corncrakes. The writer implied that money paid to farmers to avoid mowing down corncrakes nesting in their silage meadows would be better spent on a few more metres of motorway.

The next day a political correspondent of another newspaper was making mischief on the subject of counting natterjack toads. The Department of the Environment has just commissioned consultant ecologists to spend two years studying the breeding success of the toads – one of Ireland’s more vulnerable species – to fulfil commitments under the EU habitats directive.

Not so long ago, ran the story, Taoiseach Enda Kenny was mocking John Gormley for spending money on a study of the Irish frog population (again at the EU’s behest, as frogs are in trouble across much of the world). “Are we,” asked Kenny then, “to see the spectre of the Minister, Deputy Gormley, in his sandals, tramping through the wetlands of the midlands counting frogs at dawn or dusk?”

Such provocations coincide with the publication of the first big inventory of Irish wildlife, great and small, by the National Biodiversity Data Centre. This agency, in Waterford, was set up on the initiative of the Heritage Council as a basic tool of research and policy for nature conservation and land use. Funded by the Department of the Environment, it has gathered some 1.6 million records of Ireland’s species, from algae to eagles. They now number more than 31,000, with at least another 10,000 (at a wild guess) to be found on and around the island.

All very worthy, as the letter writer might agree, but what has biodiversity ever done for me? I have long disliked the lofty otherness of this academic coinage, compressing “biological diversity”. It quite lacks the warmth and engagement of “nature” or “wildlife”. But it does have real meaning, if one that, more and more, must be spelled out in the cash value of nature’s “ecosystem services”.

Thus, at the launch of this month’s biodiversity inventory, the centre’s director, Dr Liam Lysaght, priced the insect pollination of human food plants at an estimated €85 million a year and part of a national benefit he put at €2.6 billion. The new Minister for Heritage, Jimmy Deenihan, spoke of the island’s diversity of species as “cultural capital” for the attraction of ecotourism. “We have something very special,” he added hopefully.

Ireland’s natterjack toads may have been a bit too special for their own good. Their arrival and survival at the head of Dingle Bay, in Kerry, at the end of the Ice Age is part of a challenging saga of dispersal still being unravelled by geneticists. With a central abundance in Portugal and Spain, their populations now extend through 17 countries, ranging from northern England to Poland and Belarus.

So there are of pockets of them across Europe as a whole, just as corncrakes are still holding their own on unintensified farmland in eastern Europe. But this protected Irish species has a conservation status that is officially bad – this pending a study of whether 90 new ponds for breeding could slowly bring their numbers back.

Natterjacks need to breed in warm, shallow ponds free of vegetation and of predators that eat their tadpoles – ideally, transient ponds that dry up at the right time in summer. The toads once spawned right around the shores of Castlemaine Harbour, on Dingle Bay, but as coastal farmland was drained numbers fell by perhaps half. With the toads’ traditional ponds down to about a dozen, the National Parks and Wildlife Service set out to create a lot more, helped with some funding from the Heritage Council.

Ponds created previously at Castlegregory golf links had already shown great success. In 2008 and 2009 45 farmers around Castlemaine and near Fermoyle (the toads’ other traditional station), also on Tralee Bay, dug two ponds each in their coastal pastures – shallow saucers about 15m across and no more than a metre deep. An annual €500 per pond for five years also rewards them for keeping them clear of reeds by hand and controlling grazing to keep the grass short.

The right kind of rain in spring can produce huge numbers of yellow-striped toadlets, a mere centimetre long when they first venture on to land. A dry year, on the other hand, can lead to mass mortality. It may take many years for numbers to build in enough of the 90 new ponds. As a positive augury, the first males began calling at Fermoyle in mid March, a full month ahead of schedule.

As it happens both natterjack and corncrake have penetrating, far-carrying calls, each quite exceptional of their kind. Both can make a quiet night magical – which is all, I suppose, they ever did for us.

Eye on nature

Why do predatory flatworms cause a problem in Ireland but not in the Antipodes?

Ciarán Brannigan, Stillorgan, Co Dublin

New Zealand flatworms found in their limited natural habitats in New Zealand cause no problems. But they have spread throughout the country through human agency – gardens and nurseries, for example – causing the same problems for earthworms as they do here.

On March 14th and 15th I saw a cuckoo in nearby trees. And I heard one call last Sunday.

Martha Leathem, Gorey, Co Wexford

My wife and I heard a cuckoo at our home on March 24th. It was definitely not a wood pigeon.

Brian Watson, Dunmore, Co Galway

On March 22nd I watched a hen blackbird feeding one of her fledglings on the grass in our garden.

Seamus McGrath, Carrick-on-Suir, Co Tipperary

On the golf links at Lahinch a white, foam-like substance was scattered in random patches on the 10th fairway.

Austin Slattery, Ennis, Co Clare

From the photograph you enclosed it is the slime mould Mucilago crustacea var crustacea in its plasmoidal stage, when it is called porridge mould. It will later change shape into its fruiting body.

Michael Viney welcomes observations at Thallabawn, Carrowniskey PO, Westport, Co Mayo, or e-mail Please include a postal address