Nearly two years since the Dáil declared a climate and a biodiversity emergency, the collapse of Irish biodiversity "is happening – and it's countrywide", the Oireachtas Climate Committee has been told.
In a damning assessment, Pádraic Fogarty of the Irish Wildlife Trust said legislators needed to act with urgency by pursuing readily available solutions – the committee is examining how a 51 per cent cut in carbon emissions can be achieved by 2030, including the possible contribution from enhanced biodiversity.
“As legislators you play a key role in addressing this [biodiversity] crisis,” he underlined. “The good news is solutions are to hand: farming in a way that is close to nature; ending overfishing and creating well-managed marine protected areas, investing in wastewater infrastructure, reintroducing species we have driven to extinction, rewilding our rivers and uplands so that forests and peatlands are restored.”
“Perverse subsidies” promoting destruction of nature must be removed and laws no longer fit for addressing the challenges needed to be reformed. He cited the Arterial Drainage Act, “which results in so much damage to our river systems”, whereas Ireland’s Biodiversity Action Plan urgently needed to put on a legal footing.
“Nature restoration is climate action – healthy bogs, farmland and oceans store and sequester carbon. It is also people action – creating employment, diversifying economic opportunity, strengthening communities and reducing inequalities,” Mr Fogarty said.
Ireland native forests have been reduced to "sorry fragments extending to no more than 2 per cent of our land area".
He added: “What wasn’t forest was wetlands and bogs but these too have been remorselessly exploited so today less than 1 per cent of midlands bogs are still growing while across the uplands and west of Ireland, less than one third of these peatlands remain “suitable for conservation”. Even these areas have been largely denuded of their wildlife due to fires and overgrazing.”
Most fields “are practically devoid of life while even the ancient system of hedgerows is vanishing due to neglect and outright destruction”, he said.
“An incredible two thirds of all our bird species are heading for extinction,” he pointed out, with waterways mostly polluted from farm runoff and undertreated human sewage.
Ireland has a lamentable reputation for overfishing marine life, Mr Fogarty said, “while we continue to lose biodiversity in the mere 2 per cent of our seas that fall within protected areas”.
Healthy ecosystems were central to food production; availability of clean water and climate stability as well as mental and physical health, he added.
“Yet we have destroyed them. Successive governments have signed up to a raft of legislation to protect biodiversity”, he noted, in a scenario where the State is “the biggest transgressor of environmental law”.
“Our children face a frightening future. As legislators – right now – you are making key decisions that will shape that future. I urge you to act with the level of urgency that this crisis requires... restoring nature to our island could be the most wonderful project to bring our communities together. We are, after all, a part of nature.”
Professor of botany at Trinity College Dublin Jane Stout said without a variety of creatures and habitats, "we wouldn't have protection against natural hazards – sea-surges, floods, droughts. Without a rich and diverse landscape, our culture and recreational opportunities would be diminished. And with loss of that biodiversity loss, I can't over-state the problems that will face human societies".
Biodiversity was key to reducing emissions in slowing carbon release and to adapting to consequences of climate disruption, she said.
“In Ireland, we hold a trump card – healthy peatlands are fantastic carbon sinks. Peatlands cover only about 3 per cent of the Earth’s land surface, but store about double the amount of carbon in all forests which cover 10 times that area.”
She added: “Peatlands retain carbon and prevent it from being lost to the atmosphere; as well as acting like giant sponges, holding rainwater and releasing it slowly, and preventing flooding; and they provide habitat for plants, and animals, like birds, that need these wild open spaces.”
She agreed establishing a national park in the midlands was merited, if pursued correctly.
Street trees and other green spaces could help urban areas cope with higher summer temperatures, she said, thereby cooling cities; coastal wetlands could protect against storm surges; wooded floodplains and peatlands could attenuate flood water, while patches of scrub could hold soil together and prevent erosion and soil loss.
Diversity was critical to adapting to a climate-changed future, notably in agriculture, she noted. “But we do need to restore ecosystems back to health, ensure biodiversity is there. Most of our ecosystems are not in good health. Peatlands have been converted to grassland, planted with forestry and harvested for fuel – most of them are emitting carbon rather than storing it.”
"We need to ditch the perverse policies, make people proud of being stewards of nature. Don't penalise farmers for having uncultivatable land and pay them for actions that have no positive effect, work with them and pay them to restore biodiversity on parts of their farms they can't cultivate," Prof Stout recommended.
The All-Ireland Pollinator Plan had brought together communities, local authorities, schools and businesses. “Working together for pollinators has brought additional benefits for other wildlife, has got commercial companies investing in nature and has brought people together with a common purpose.”
Investing in nature “doesn’t cost the earth, but it gives us and the Earth a chance,” she said.
Director of the National Biodiversity Data Centre Dr Liam Lysaght said the number and diversity of species in an area was a good measure of ecosystem health, yet lack of data was all too evident.
Other than the Irish Butterfly Monitoring Scheme showing a 1.3 per cent decline in butterfly populations since 2008, and the All-Ireland Bumblebee Monitoring Scheme showing a 4.8 per cent decline each year in bumblebee populations since 2012, “we know very little about how these less conspicuous elements of biodiversity or biodiversity function are performing”.
This impeded effective biodiversity policy, he believed. Quite a bit was known about easily recognisable species. Red Lists had found on average “about 20 per cent, or one in five of all species assessed in Ireland are threatened with extinction. And for bees and fish it is an alarming 30 per cent”.
Some 63 per cent of regularly occurring bird species in Ireland were of conservation concern, with numbers of highest concern increasing by 46 per cent since 2013, he said.
Dr Lysaght added: “We need to make space for biodiversity in all parts of the country: gardens, parks, urban areas, farmland, forestry, roadsides, foreshore and marine waters. Everyone taking voluntary actions (big and small) for biodiversity can have a positive cumulative impact.”
Tackling declines in species would require a much vigorous and strategic approach, as it is likely to require landscape-scale or catchment-scale interventions. “This has already begun for species such as freshwater pearl mussel, hen harrier and curlew, but a great deal more needs to be done if it is to be effective.”
Responding to committee members, Dr Lysaght said Ireland’s extensive hedgerows could serve as an artery to restoration of biodiversity but they were currently in a poor state. Enhancing biodiversity through changes in farming was “a win-win” but the narrative needed to be changed as nature was often associated with restrictions and regulations.
He called for a public sector ambassador to ensure consistency in biodiversity policy.
The National Parks & Wildlife Service – “probably the most important part of the jigsaw” – needed to put on an independent footing, similar to the EPA, Mr Fogarty said. This would ensure it was not shifted around government departments after general elections. An important lever for change, he suggested, was enshrining in the Constitution the right of nature to exist, and citizens’ entitlement to a healthy environment.
To help measure progress on biodiversity, Prof Stout told Deputy Richard Bruton (FG) work was being done with the help of the EPA in determining the carbon and biodiversity footprints of farms by applying a UN system for measuring natural capital.
The importance of getting the work done on biodiversity at local level was raised by Senator Pauline O’Reilly who suggested having biodiversity officers on every council across the country to “help bring the public on board but also ensure that we get the work done at a local level”.
Prof Stout said “biodiversity offices in every council, and more than one, would be desirable...you look at the decisions that are made at that level in terms of planning, the expertise isn’t necessarily there in terms of planning for education for outreach, for all the different facets needed. So at least one, I think, I would advocate for.”