British comedian, Steve Coogan, in his Alan Partridge incarnation takes the starring role in an advertisement for a boat hire firm offering boating holidays on England’s canals. One of Alan’s lines uttered on board a boat sailing along the tranquil wooded canal bank is “Try pedestrianising this”.
In the real world of Waterways Ireland’s activities, this is their desired outcome. Grassy canal banks are being pedestrianised, with hard black tarmac poured over green walkways, which prior to their destruction, were ideal for strollers and casual cyclists alike. And for nature.
In 2018 Waterways Ireland was refused permission to build hard surfaces by Carlow County Council and was denied permission for part of their proposed walkway by two other planning authorities, Kildare and Laois County Councils. The councils did not accept Waterway Ireland’s assurances that their proposed development would not harm the habitats in the Special Area of Conservation along the River Barrow. One of the areas of contention was the negative impact on tree roots that would arise from preparing the ground for a walkway/cycleway by soil excavation and the laying of a hard surface. Waterways Ireland asserted their construction methods would not damage roots, opponents of their plan differed. Waterways Ireland has appealed the councils’ refusal to An Bord Pleanála.
However, recently Waterways Ireland clear-felled hundreds of trees along a stretch of the Barrow in Carlow. In a statement of apology published in the Carlow Nationalist, Waterways Ireland admitted that the work was carried out without taking the steps required by law. These steps are to prepare a habitat directive statement, in consultation with the National Parks and Wildlife Service. Waterways Ireland failed to follow this procedure.
It is very hard not to believe that Waterways Ireland removed the trees to remove a key argument against installing their hard surface.
Butterfly Conservation Ireland has written to Carlow County Council and An Bord Pleanála to notify them of the damage and ask what action will be taken. Butterfly Conservation Ireland also wrote to the National Parks and Wildlife Service asking what steps do the National Parks and Wildlife Service intend to take given Waterways Ireland’s failure to adhere to their obligations under the provisions of the European Communities (Birds and Natural Habitats) Regulations 2011.
The Barrow waterway and wooded and grassy banks are local and national treasures. These are beautiful places to relax as well as holding great habitats. The habitats are, in several areas, very rich in butterfly and moth populations. Well over a hundred of our larger moth species breed on trees as do three of our butterflies, the Brimstone, Brown Hairstreak and the Purple Hairstreak. Several moths and butterflies breed on the wild grasses along this river and more breed on the herbs. In short, these are great places for man and nature.
Waterways Ireland claims in its defence that the tree-felling was done for maintenance of the hedge and tree-line. But the ‘maintenance’ consists of fully removing the trees. For photographs of the damage see: https://www.facebook.com/243758302774965/posts/543811886102937/
When Waterways Ireland cover the towpath with tar and chop down all remaining trees, the areas under their remit would in future be maintenance-free and fully pedestrianised.
Would even the publicity obsessive Partridge agree to present an advert for Waterways Ireland in these circumstances? Bizarre he is, but I doubt it.
Ireland’s Grassland Butterflies in serious Decline.
Recently Butterfly Conservation Ireland made its submission to Heritage Ireland 2030, the Irish Government’s invitation for submissions to the National Heritage Plan. This plan will contain the “strategic priorities which will guide and inform the heritage sector for the next decade”. If our natural heritage really is, using the words of the Government’s document, to be “valued and protected for future generations” and “cherished and enjoyed” funded measures will be needed, especially to protect grassland butterflies.
Grassland butterflies are a key indicator of the condition of our grassland habitats. The All-Ireland Butterfly Atlas 2017-2021 will tell us a great deal about the status of Ireland’s grassland species and about all of our other butterflies. However, we know from experience and from the Ireland Red List No. 4 Butterflies published in 2010 by the National Parks and Wildlife Service that there is a great crisis developing. Four of the six butterflies which are rated as threatened under the criteria developed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) are grassland species. Four of the five butterflies rated as Near Threatened are grassland butterflies.
The European Dimension
The decline in grassland butterflies is not restricted to Ireland. The European Grassland Butterfly Indicator 1990-2011 published by the European Environment Agency (EEA) in 2013 contains the disturbing finding that since 1990, the populations of grassland butterflies monitored across 19 European countries have declined by nearly 50%. Seventeen species were monitored. The monitored butterflies classed as widespread species that also occur here are Orange-tip, Small Copper, Common Blue, Wall Brown, Meadow Brown and Small Heath. The specialist species monitored that occur in Ireland are Dingy Skipper, Small Blue and Marsh Fritillary. Five of these species are ranked threatened or Near Threatened on the Ireland Red List.
The EEA report states two main reasons for the declines. These are agricultural intensification in the flatter, more fertile areas and abandonment of traditional farming in areas of lower fertility. Both of these factors apply in Ireland. In the fertile drier grasslands south of a line from Dundalk to Limerick intensification involving the use of fertilisers, herbicides, pesticides, re-seeding, ploughing of grasslands, drainage, hedgerow removal and the sinister destruction of remaining adjoining semi-natural grassland by spray-drift and nitrogen deposition from intensively farmed grassland. The nitrogen build up accelerates the growth of rank grasses and speeds up natural succession (scrub growth) cooling the micro-climate which delays or prevents larval development.
In the areas of poorer soils in western areas and on steep slopes where farming cannot be intensified farmers are abandoning the land which is reverting to scrub and eventually woodland. While there are butterfly winners in the changes to habitats, at least in the short and medium terms, the loss of habitat eliminates grassland butterflies, i.e. the majority of Ireland’s butterflies.
The EEA report offers solutions to the problems of intensification and abandonment. However, I believe that the solution offered to the massive biodiversity loss arising in intensively farmed areas is weak. It mentions the designated site network (sites designated as Special Areas of Conservation to protect certain species and habitats) avoiding fragmentation of habitats. Fragmentation means that disconnected habitats are increasingly distant from one another. As a result, the butterfly species that live on a site will become increasingly isolated from other individuals making recolonisation of a site where a population is lost (often by natural causes) impossible by the great distance between habitats. In this context, the report calls for conservation measures to take the wider landscape into account. What the report does not do is to offer ways of dealing with intensification itself even though intensive farming is clearly the destroyer of biodiversity in much of northern and western Europe.
The failure of the report to address this issue properly is a serious deficiency. It suggests a lack of interest in tackling this crisis. The issue of chemical inputs must be dealt with. Furthermore, we are wasting vast amounts of food; maybe we are over-producing? Should some land be taken out of production? Or better still, managed in a traditional, pre-1970s fashion, to be gentler on our soils? We did not starve in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s when massive chemical inputs were not present. Neither did our wildlife lack space.
As far as abandonment is concerned, the report makes some useful recommendations involving funding low-intensity farming. While these make sense for such areas they do not deal with the problem in the main farmed landscapes. This will require changes in outlook, in the way farming is carried out in these areas and funding measures.
What you can do
One way of driving the pressure for conservation is to clarify the extent of the problem. We can do our part in Ireland by helping to monitor butterfly populations. The butterfly records you send to Butterfly Conservation Ireland will feed into this process. Please look at the information needed to provide a valid record and how to send a butterfly record here:
With the records you send us, we can provide the information needed to contribute to the All-Ireland Butterfly Atlas in 2021. This information will also be important to update the Red List, up for review in 2020. We will use the data to press the Irish Government and EU to implement nature-friendly policies to ensure that our natural heritage is “valued and protected for future generations” as well as “cherished and enjoyed” by us today.
You can also make your own submission to Heritage Ireland 2030 before the March 31st deadline. For details of how to make a submission see https://www.chg.gov.ie/heritage/heritageireland2030/. We ask that you call for funding support for the butterfly monitoring schemes and for conservation-orientated landscape management programmes such as the programme used in the Burren (see http://burrenprogramme.com/the-programme/our-approach/ ) to be extended to other areas of High Nature Value farmland. Another submission that can be made is to call for habitat creation/restoration measures in areas of intensive farming and for research on the impact of farming chemicals on butterflies and other invertebrates.
Finally, considering the past helps to focus us on what kind of future there might be. As a child of the 1970s, I never imagined the day that I would have to travel several miles from my rural home to see a humble Small Heath butterfly or that the cheerful and familiar Wall Brown would ever become a rarity. What will a nature-loving child of today be saying about these two butterflies in twenty years?