What price our countryside?


Putting a value on our natural heritage should be a key part of Government commitment to the environment, argues Michael Viney

Whose job was it, this past week, to keep the bird-feeders filled with peanuts at the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government? Did the Minister, Dick Roche, suddenly remember the blue tits when he was offered nibbles at a party, and dash off to the Custom House on a mercy mission? In November, after all, he "assisted" with installing the feeders in the grounds - and the peanut supply has to be kept up.

There are jokes to be made about peanuts, nature and the Government, but the package of initiatives announced by Roche last month has brightened the scene considerably. He listed North-South schemes for protecting threatened species, measures to spread "biodiversity undertakings" across Government departments and local authorities, and a biodiversity forum to bring green non-government organisations (NGOs) a bit closer to the action.

Most reassuringly, perhaps, after the spancelling of Dúchas under Martin Cullen, there was endorsement of the Heritage Council's leadership in promoting the natural environment (and even an extra million for a biodiversity fund).

However, as we catch up on commitments under the Convention on Biological Diversity signed by the Republic a decade ago, development races ahead. Trends in the Irish countryside are prefigured in the important Rural Ireland 2025 Foresight Report recently published by NUI Maynooth, UCD and Teagasc.

"Degradation of coastal and rural landscapes," it says, "constitutes a most worrying threat."

As the number of full-time farmers dwindles towards 10,000, scrub and bracken will encroach on marginal farms and uplands.

Biodiversity will suffer from farm intensification in the east and south.

One-off housing will boost pollution risks, adding even further to the Republic's 350,000 septic tanks.

In 2006 we shall hear a lot more about the EU's Water Framework Directive, which the Heritage Council has called "the most important piece of environmental legislation to come out of Europe". Water is vital both to people and natural ecosystems, such as wetlands; and the EU directive wants both to get their share, in good condition, by 2015.

The island has already been divided into eight "river basin districts", cutting across all kinds of administrative boundaries. A first survey of hundreds of lakes and rivers found most of them at risk or "probable risk" from pollution and construction - this even without the population pressures suggested by the National Spatial Strategy and decentralisation.

In 2006, a start will be made on widespread monitoring, and wider public input to river basin management plans. The water directive is already making ripples, requiring control of farm nitrates and forest phosphates. New riparian woodlands will improve water quality by buffering pollution and enriching the rivers' natural ecosystems.

The reasons for growing broadleafed trees were tested last November when a Coillte researcher told an Irish Farmers Association forestry conference that there was no commercial basis for planting them and that public pressure for broadleaves is based on sentiment rather than logic.

Proper ecological objectives should not be confused with profit, he argued, and special grants and premiums only confuse the issue. This and other analysis favouring the commercial dominance of conifers has stirred the wrath of those committed to "sustainable" forests, with mixed species and multiple functions.

A comprehensive study of the upper Shannon waterway, including Lough Key and Lough Allen, just published by the Heritage Council (and available at www.heritagecouncil.ie) reinforces the council's call this month for co-ordinated, well-funded management of canals and waterways for recreation and tourism. One problem is that livestock fences put up to satisfy Rural Environment Protection Schemes (Reps) often close off river banks - yet another possible arena for countryside conflict.

THIS MONTH SAW the final public consultation by Comhairle na Tuaithe, the countryside recreation council set up by the Minister for Rural Affairs, Éamon Ó Cuív, to resolve confrontations between farmers and walkers; its proposals should emerge in the spring.

A significant appointment to the new board of the Heritage Council is that of Carolynne Ferris, manager of the North's highly successful Countryside Access and Activities Network.

Confrontations over access to coasts and hills, and bitter rows over planning led the Rural Ireland 2025 authors to urge "conflict resolution processes leading to the development of a more rational public consensus". And since appreciation of the "public good" seems no longer a mere social virtue, the authors insist that "the value of public goods, especially those provided by agriculture, forestry and the marine sectors, [ needs] to be quantified and priced".

The Heritage Council is thinking along similar lines. It has just invited tenders for "a survey to ascertain the financial value placed on Ireland's heritage by the general public, using proven methodology such as Contingent Valuation Methodology". It wants to find out the value placed on individual aspects of heritage, as well as the value of sites that combine a number of aspects, such as archaeology, wildlife and landscape.

Even Dick Roche would like to put a value on nature and its richness of species. He has announced funding for "specific generic and sectoral research on the quantification of the economic and social benefits of biodiversity to society as a whole". He hopes this will help frame the second National Biodiversity Plan, from 2007 onwards.

In the first one, "action plans" will conserve hares and corncrakes, a rare fish (pollan) and a rare orchid (Irish Lady's Tresses). After those will come otters, red squirrels and bats, pearl mussels and the rare Killarney fern. How do you put a value on them all? Environmental economics may be one path to public consensus, fitting well with the new materialism.

But much of the Heritage Council's success has come from helping local patriotism. In the past decade it has given more than €18 million in grants to hundreds of projects all over the country; another 2.3 million of National Lottery money will be spent in 2006. The projects make up a remarkable mosaic of enlightenment, from conservation plans for rural sites and towns, through heritage publications that could never be bestsellers, to important local research and education.

SOME PROJECTS DEMONSTRATE directly the pressures of development on the countryside. Westmeath County Council was given a grant this year to make an urgent survey of its eskers - the glacial ridges so distinctive of its landscape and now threatened with progressive gutting of their sand and gravel to build roads and houses.

This research is needed for the county's heritage plan, which itself exists because of the Heritage Council. Through partnership with local authorities there are now full-time heritage officers in 25 counties, and vigorous local involvement in conservation plans. While, in some counties, these are viewed with suspicion as a back-door attempt to sneak in more Special Areas of Conservation, other authorities have responded with enthusiasm.

In Co Offaly, for example, the county council has just published a groundbreaking Biodiversity Action Strategy - a booklet much more vivid and vigorous than the deadening title suggests (it is available by e-mail from apedlow@offalycoco.ie). In what could become a national model for action at county level, it marries community involvement to the skills of professional environmental people whose home is Offaly. The county council website will be the hub of an ecological network, a "web of wild places" enriched by perpetual research.

Commitment to the Biodiversity Convention is thus increasingly handed down to local level. It could be an exciting and revelatory way of engaging communities with their natural environment - if, that is, they agree it has any value.