In 2018 the Natural History Museum of London drew up what they called a ‘Biodiversity Intactness Index’, which ranked all 240 global nations and states according to how nature was faring within their borders. Where, you might wonder, did Ireland come in?
The answer: 13th from the bottom.
That’s right: only in 12 places on the entire planet is nature worse off, and one of those is Northern Ireland, at 12th. This will come as a shock to many people, who associate our green landscape with a healthy environment. But those findings fit perfectly with all the known data on what’s happening to Irish nature. Virtually every habitat and species category is in decline, many of them at rapid speed.
The fact we’re seeing the same phenomenon in most other parts of the world makes Ireland’s abysmal ranking especially damning.
Why is nature haemorrhaging at such terrible speed? The root causes are many but by far the biggest of them is farming.
In essence, agriculture entails taking what was once, at some point in time, a wild natural ecosystem composed of thousands of species and converting it into an artificial state, the primary objective of which is to produce food or other goods for one species only: us. Of course, that has been essential to our survival, but in the process nature took a very serious hit.
Nonetheless, past technological limitations meant that though a whole raft of species were pushed out, others were able to cling on.
Now, however, heavily mechanised and chemical-based industrial farming leaves no space even for those species that had previously somehow managed to survive. Above all else, nature needs healthy wild natural habitats, and in Ireland these have become almost non-existent. Virtually the entire island is just one big farm based on monocultures: rye grass, molinia grass, sitka or something else. Natural forest, for example, which is estimated to have once covered 80 per cent of the land, is now only about a (mostly ecologically trashed) 1.5per cent.Other habitats, such as bogs, wetlands and wildflower-rich meadows, have been equally hammered. And things are just as bad at sea, even if the destruction is less visible, hidden beneath the waves.
Rejecting the nature restoration law means blithely accepting the ongoing death spiral of Irish nature for another decade, perhaps far longer
But as hopeless as this all sounds, it’s absolutely not. Set aside space for nature, whether on land or at sea, and it will generally respond with the most incredible comeback.
I learned this through direct experience on the farm I bought on the Beara peninsula in west Cork in 2009. Most of the land was covered in what I subsequently realised was wild temperate rainforest, but highly degraded due to severe overgrazing by invasive feral goats and sika deer. The trees and other native flora were unable to regenerate, paving the way for takeover by a host of invasive plants like rhododendron. So I applied for a grant to fence out the grazers, and set to work clearing the invasive plants. Over the following years, with the grazers no longer eating every last bit of native vegetation, I was witness to the most jaw-dropping, magical transformation.
Wild native tree seedlings like oak, birch, rowan and hazel began to sprout everywhere, and have since gone on to form new young forest in areas that were previously just barren grass. Within the forest, drifts of bluebell, wood anemone, celandine, dog-violet and scores of other wildflowers appeared. The explosion in vitality hugely boosted numbers of insect pollinators, attracting in additional numbers of birds. Several rare mammal species even showed up: lesser horseshoe bats, pine martens and otters. The whole place is now just bursting at the seams with wonderfully diverse life.
Reversing the ecological meltdown wasn’t complicated: just undoing the human constraints and then letting nature get on with it. And that is exactly what we need to be doing across Ireland to address one of the worst ecological crises on the planet: restoring natural habitats on a massive scale – not only rainforest, all of them. Our 2019 national declaration of a climate and ecological emergency would thereby become truly meaningful – rather than remain cheap, empty words.
In considering nature’s catastrophic – and worsening – state, we need to remember that human wellbeing depends on its health. Utterly. Without large-scale properly functioning wild natural ecosystems, there will be no stable climate, no farming, no economy, no civilisation. No liveable planet. That might seem hyperbolic, but it’s really not: the more we understand how our biosphere works, the more inescapable this fundamental reality becomes, a fact that cannot be overstressed. Done right, restoring nature – rewilding – would actually vastly improve, rather than present any risk to, Ireland’s food security, and inject new vibrancy and resilience into struggling rural communities. There really is nothing to lose, and everything to gain.
The effects of ecological and climate breakdown have been making life ever more intensely difficult, and racing towards the impossible, for decades. Without a radical shift in our relationship with the natural world, that’s where we’re headed too
Right now, the European Union is trying to introduce a nature restoration law that would help redress the present disastrous situation, and, crucially, in ways that are completely fair to farmers, as they absolutely must be. However, the reaction from the two biggest Irish political parties – Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil – has overwhelmingly been one of hostility, with most of their MEPs stating they will be voting against. The reasons given are based on total misunderstandings – possibly deliberate – of what the law proposes. But rejecting it means blithely accepting the ongoing death spiral of Irish nature for another decade, perhaps far longer.
The very activity that will be most drastically impacted by the dangerously unpredictable and volatile biosphere we are currently so furiously unleashing is agriculture. You simply cannot farm if you get several months of rain in a day, or none for several months, or crazy temperature extremes, as Spanish farmers have lately been discovering. In many other parts of the world, the effects of ecological and climate breakdown have been making life ever more intensely difficult, and racing towards the impossible, for decades. Make no mistake: without a radical shift in our relationship with the natural world, that’s where we’re headed too.
Regardless of what they claim, those MEPs who vote down the nature restoration law will be guilty of voting down the future of Irish farming. In fact, all of our futures.
Eoghan Daltun is an author and advocate for rewilding