OPINION: Fortune of the Kildare curlew is canary in the mine

Vision for Kildare

Conor McHugh


Conor McHugh



OPINION: Fortune of the Kildare curlew is canary in the mine

The curlew

Maybe it’s because we’re a small country, but we have this terrible compulsion to never allow any square inch of ground to just be.

It has to have a house on it, a lawn, a football field or — God come between us and all harm — a golf course.

Or, if it’s agricultural land, it has to have fertiliser spread, and grass sown and the soil analysed and the crops rotated and so on and so on.

Bord na Mona is coming to the end of at least one part of its existence with the depletion of harvestable peat and there’s been lots of questions about what they will do with the land afterwards.

The one option that nobody seems to have considered is that they do nothing with it, to just let nature take its course and re-colonise it. They’d be doing us all a favour if they did.

The other day I was at a talk given by an expert on curlews, a bird so synonymous with Ireland that we have it on a stamp, but which faces extinction in as little as a decade if we don’t do something about it.

Usually found in wetter parts of the country, it is known for its song as much as its long beak. We currently has 120 breeding pairs, with only five in Kildare.

There was a 34% decline between 2007 and 2014. Increasing intensity and industrialisation of agriculture and peat harvesting is to blame.

The speaker, Mary Colwell, an English woman, described vividly her shock when she first saw one of the huge, expansive, Bord na Mona peat harvesting sites.

No doubt it reminded her of Wales in the 1980s which had invested so heavily in sheep that she described it as “a billiard table of nothingness”.

She quoted the 2016 EPA annual report which said that a majority of Ireland’s natural habitats are in bad shape.

This is at odds with an entire tourism industry that depends on the notion that this is a lush and green land, full of wildlife and nature.

Instead it turns out that we’ve meddled and messed with so much of our land that our wildlife cannot survive there.

Now, you might think that it doesn’t really matter if we lose a bird that few people would recognise if it flew over them.

I even had some difficulty convincing colleagues of the newsworthiness of attending the meeting.

But Mary Colwell’s talk laid it bare; the curlew is the canary in the mine for us. If we let it go, another will species — possibly the beautiful lapwing — will go next. It’s a slippery slope. We could soon have very little interesting wildlife left.

And if we allow that, then we face the ravages of the law of unintended consequences.

An example: in Yellowstone National Park deer flourished and grazed so extensively from the 1920s onwards that they destroyed the habitats of numerous other animals and weakened the banks of the river so much that it was prone to soil erosion and flooding.

We know this because when wolves, which went extinct in the park in the 1920s, were reintroduced in the 1990s, the damage was reversed.

Everything in nature has a knock-on effect. We didn’t realise that exhausting our bogs, filling the country with so many cattle or cutting silage four times a year would drive the curlew (and other birds) to the brink of extinction, but it did.

What else are we destroying?

Mary Colwell suggested we need a vision for how Ireland and Kildare will look in years from now, and develop a plan.

It might prove very unpopular, but it will be worth it in the end.