Mixed messages from politicians on biodiversity

Time to restore meadows once full of insects and nectar in summer and spires of seeds in winter

The skylark is among the species that has been attracted to Feargal Ó Cuinneagáin’s meadows of richly mixed native herbs and wild flower. Drawing by Michael Viney

The skylark is among the species that has been attracted to Feargal Ó Cuinneagáin’s meadows of richly mixed native herbs and wild flower. Drawing by Michael Viney

 

On first encounter a generation ago, it seemed such gawky jargon, the coinage of science journals, that I winced at using it here in ordinary, affable company. But it did, after all, spring from a globally hopeful occasion: the 1992 UN Earth Summit in Rio. This generated the Convention on Biological Diversity – “the variability among living organisms from all sources” – elided at once into “biodiversity”.

Years of use took the word comfortably into wider awareness, along with terms such as “ecosystem” and “keystone”. But it has taken the shocking news of the world’s loss of species to hitch it to the crisis of climate change.

It has even arrived as a public concern in the current general election. Framed boldly in online purple, “Biodiversity: Protecting our fauna and natural habitat” is the work of the young, small but clearly dead-keen Social Democrats. Four pages of informed and often persuasive proposals range from buying unprofitable farmland for conversion into native woodland to trapping and neutering urban cats, notorious predators on songbirds.

The Green Party, with two MEPs, has been preoccupied with framing an ambitious “Green Deal” for Europe. Its website is short on specifics but offers a whole album of domestic endeavours to benefit biodiversity.

Important was its success last October in gaining Dáil support to change the thrust of forestry, switching away from short-rotation conifer plantations to more natural, close-cover native woodlands. Less agreeable was Green leader Eamon Ryan’s “rewilding” proposal that the reintroduction of wolves might serve a future Irish ecosystem.

A forthright manifesto has come from BirdWatch Ireland, now the most popular of Ireland’s NGOs

Sinn Féin’s focus on social issues seems to preclude the natural world. The Labour Party, too, returns nothing to my online prod from “biodiversity”.

Fianna Fáil has something. Its spokesman on agriculture, Charlie McConalogue, urges that more than 200,000 hectares of land, ineligible for basic Cap farm payments, should be eligible for biodiversity payments under Ireland’s agro-environment schemes. Who knows what richness of species subsist in the “scrubland, streams and recreational areas” outside of agriculturally “productive” use?

A forthright manifesto has come from BirdWatch Ireland, now the most popular of Ireland’s NGOs. I like its straight demand for more government money for nature. The budget for the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) must increase to €100 million, it says. At present it receives about €15 million to protect the nation’s biodiversity, “whereas €80 million is allocated to horse and greyhound racing”.

In a recent column, I discussed the award of some €4 million of EU money towards the cost of a five-year conservation programme on Donegal and Connacht farmland. The aim is to save our summer corncrakes, all but extinct as migrants to Ireland and declining in western Europe but still breeding in millions in Russia and Kazakhstan.

Even in winter, he has recorded barnacle and greylag geese, twite, golden plover and curlew

The award was gratefully received by the NPWS, whose land management plans, agreed with farmers, include the planting of meadows with tall native vegetation to give corncrakes cover for their breeding.

This costly programme, for birds that are neither “keystone” for their habitat nor threatened with planetary loss, seemed a fair example of the challenge to conservation in choosing which species to save.

The column brought pertinent comment from Feargal Ó Cuinneagáin, a young farmer who has pioneered sowing for the corncrake on 10 grassy and windswept hectares of the Mullet Peninsula in Co Mayo. His meadows of richly mixed native herbs and wild flowers, while primarily managed for corncrake cover, have attracted a striking variety of birds – “breeding skylark”, lists Ó Cuinneagáin, “meadow pipit, snipe, reed bunting, sedge warbler, grasshopper warbler, stonechat, wheatear and chough”.

Even in winter, he has recorded barnacle and greylag geese, twite, golden plover and curlew. And the summer profusion of yellow rattle, bird’s foot trefoil and red clover offers food to the great yellow bumblebee, the rare pollinator that now survives only in parts of the west.

So yes, biodiversity indeed. And in the careful elaboration, of plants beyond the familiar nettles and yellow iris, it is the deliberate restoration of the meadows that used to be, full of insects and nectar in summer and spires of seeds in winter.

“Farming for Nature”, however, the movement for which Ó Cuinneagáin’s farm is showpiece, insists that “the plan is not a step back in time” but a way forward, not least in helping to save the pollinators that flowering plants need to survive. In most of the high-nature-value farmland across Ireland, it argues, “the income from agri-environmental schemes is a lifeline in keeping farmers farming”.

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