WHERE TO NOW AFTER WILDFIRE WIPE OUT? By Pádraic Fogarty, IWT Campaigns Ofﬁcer.
he issue of wildfires was raised on these pages in our spring issue. Then we called on Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine Simon Coveney to deny single farm payments to those found responsible for breaching the Wildlife Act by burning land during the bird nesting season. Our campaign failed to get a reaction from Minister Coveney and April saw some of the worst fires in many years. Mount Leinster, the Galtee Mountains, bogs in Galway and Roscommon all went up in flames. Wicklow Mountains National Park saw a number of fires while over 4,000 acres of Killarney National Park were also destroyed. Ireland has a major problem with annual, uncontrolled burning of open ground that is leading to the massive degradation of habitats and loss of species. What can be done? The IWT believes that denying single farm payments to perpetrators is a necessary penalty for those breaking the law but it will not resolve the long-term issue of habitat degradation in the uplands. So is there a longer-term solution? At the heart of this problem is how our uplands are valued. To-date agricultural policy has been based on only one thing: food production. Land that is not producing food is seen as worthless and farmers are only eligible for direct payments under the Common Agricultural Policy where land is ‘grazable’ and so producing food. This creates an incentive for farmers to destroy scrub or heather habitats in order to qualify for these payments, without which it would not be economic to farm and the land would be abandoned. There must therefore be a recognition that land has values beyond producing food, including for tourism and recreation, water protection, carbon storage and, of course, protecting our wildlife. Strict adherence to market demand has seen unforeseen changes in upland agriculture. Cattle were removed to comply with EU rules while the traditional black-faced sheep
Wildfire damage. Photos: Vivian Philips.
is being replaced by larger, heavier breeds that do greater damage to soft peat soils. In April the IWT attended the meeting of the Uplands Forum which heard of traditional Dexter cattle being used to graze an upland nature reserve on the Dingle Peninsula, Co. Kerry. These cattle are smaller than their lowland cousins and are hardy enough to put up with the weather. The use of radio tracking devices found that the animals avoided areas of bog, sticking instead to the drier heathland areas. Bogs in particular are not suitable for grazing and have suffered from sheep, which go anywhere and eat anything. The use of cattle, therefore, is very promising from a conservation point of view. The IWT believes that public money needs to be directed towards public goods. Under the current system Irish taxpayers are inadvertently financing habitat destruction and biodiversity loss. Restoring our
uplands needs a range of remedies that recognises the range of uses and demands on these lands. There needs to be a recognition that not everywhere is suitable for farming; in many areas restoring native upland woodlands would enhance the landscape for amenity use, protect water catchments and store carbon. Agricultural subsidies, upon which upland farmers depend for their living, should be linked to what’s best for the environment and allow the use of traditional breeds of livestock at densities that don’t degrade soils. Upland farmers themselves complain that their way of life is being eroded through depopulation and low income. Imagine a system that gets behind farmers to create new income streams and restores their role as stewards of the land. I believe that in this scenario we would not be facing the devastation that we saw this spring.
Irish Wildlife Summer ‘15
Published on Jun 9, 2015