Study unearths nature's value with worm priced at €700m


FORMER TAOISEACH Bertie Ahern once complained that major road schemes were being held up "because of swans, snails and the occasional person hanging out of a tree". But now a price-tag has been put on the true value of our wildlife.

Whatever about swans and snails - and, in the case of one road scheme, the unglamorous Kerry slug - a new report commissioned by the Department of the Environment claims that the humble earthworm is worth €700 million per annum for the "services" it provides.

These include removing dead matter and releasing nutrients back to the soil. As Charles Darwin wrote: "It may be doubted whether there are many other animals which have played so important a part in the history of the world, as have these lowly organised creatures".

The department's 197-page report, Benefits and Costs of Biodiversity in Ireland, calculates that its marginal value is worth at least €2.6 billion per annum - much more than the costs involved in maintaining it for the benefit of society, including human health and well-being.

Compiled by a consortium led by Dr Craig Bullock of Optimize Consulting, the report concedes that putting a value on biodiversity "is no easy task" and says the €2.6 billion figure is a conservative estimate; Ireland's still rich biodiversity could be worth a lot more.

"For practical purposes, what matters is knowing the approximate marginal value of key ecosystem services . . . If we have an angle on the benefits, then we can assess how far these benefits exceed the amounts that are currently being spent on relevant policies."

The report adds: "While the scope of this report is far from comprehensive and can only aspire to be a preliminary assessment, it is clear that the benefits of biodiversity far exceed the costs of current levels of biodiversity protection" - such as measures to safeguard endangered species.

This wasn't simply a case of being benevolent towards the natural world. "Rather, a high level of biodiversity also ensures that we are supplied with the 'ecosystem services' that are essential to the sustainability of our standard of living and to our survival.

"Crucially, our own health depends on biodiversity, for example as a source of pharmaceutical raw materials, but also in terms of the quality of the food that we eat, opportunities for physical exercise and resistance to disease", it says. "Loss of biodiversity is our loss."

Minister for the Environment John Gormley welcomed the report, saying it "presents a compelling case to strengthen policies" for the protection of wildlife species and their habitats from increased development and other threats, including climate change.