Ireland's wildlife had a very mixed year. Because of the bad winter and flooding problems in Spring many small animals would have found themselves homeless at a time when they should have been settling down to have offspring. Nevertheless, when summer came it brought with it warmth and excellent grass growth. In fact grass came on quicker this year than it has for many seasons. Farmers who could graze their land early experienced a boon. This had adverse effects on some wildlife. Bumble bees and butterflies suffered because small flowering plants were quickly smothered by grass, a problem especially noticed in Britain. Numbers of marbled white butterflies in Dorset were down 73% while Somerset saw declines of 85% in the numbers of bumble bees. Ireland's wildlife stories were equally varied. Slugs certainly enjoyed the wet conditions, as did flies. This helped birds like swallows who had plenty of food but hindered gardeners and threatened sheep with fly strike.
What sight is more magnificent than that of a large bird of prey stretching its wings and soaring into the air? 2016 saw increases in the numbers of some threatened native species like buzzards and the re-introduced white tail sea eagle. Many hunting birds have been in serious decline until recently, but it seems that Glas, by providing crops for wildlife, is achieving its ambition of boosting farmland birds, including buzzards. Unfortunately hen harriers have not been thriving because their upland habitats are undergoing major changes as farmers clear scrub and drain wetlands. The speed of their decline has threatened them with extinction, but a €35m scheme was announced this year to save them, and the freshwater pearl mussel. White tailed sea eagles nested successfully in three counties, producing a total of six chicks from five nests in Kerry, Cork and Galway. In Glengarriff a successful breeding pair produced Ireland's first home-bred chick and its presence there attracted much excitement in the area.
Pine martens and red squirrels continued their recovery this year. These shy creatures inhabit similar woodland fringes and are now known to benefit one another, as the pine martens control invasive grey squirrel populations. Pine martens were not welcomed back by everybody. On the brink of extinction only a few years ago, they are disliked by poultry and sheep farmers who say they have had attacks on their flocks. In one outburst of hysteria a Midlands politician claimed pine martens could take a baby from its pram. This is highly improbable as they are fearful of approaching people, besides which their preferred diet consists of smaller prey like rats, mice, rabbits and grey squirrels. For this reason their return should be welcomed.
It was a less happy story for Ireland's waterways this year. Salmon numbers remain pitifully low. Their problems range from over-fishing, lice infestations from contact with escaped farmed salmon to water quality issues inland. They need clean gravel beds in which to lay eggs but silting from drainage and flood alleviation works and the presence of pollutants in the water has affected them badly. In addition, recent years have seen a trend whereby sea hunters like cormorants and seals have been following the salmon upriver to hunt them as they prepare to lay their eggs. This has had a devastating impact on salmon numbers in certain coastal rivers like the Roughty in Kenmare. Many people are working to try and improve conditions in the rivers for salmon and efforts in Cork to bring the salmon back to the river Lee are commendable, but face tough challenges.
Similarly, fresh water pearl mussels need pristine conditions in which to breed. They can survive a long time as long as the water is not too polluted, up to a hundred years, but to breed they require pristine gravel beds. Most of the rivers in Ireland that still contain pearl mussels present ageing populations with few if any juveniles. This situation needs to be rectified and soon, or another of our native species will disappear.
This year saw the publication of a hard-hitting report about farming practises in Ireland by Environmental Pillar, an advocacy group comprising 28 NGOs. Not So Green accused The Department of Agriculture and Bord Bia of being too smug about our green credentials, citing continued environmental pressures from farming and forestry. The report states: “Farmers should be supported by national and EU policy to maximise calorie and protein production while minimising impacts to climate and the environment in Ireland and elsewhere. By pricing food pollution impacts, consumers would pay for pollution and reward efficiency by providing revenues to fund a farming transition to sustainable food production.”
In addition, the EPA released its own State of Nature report. It highlighted the areas of accomplishment in the last number of years, especially with regard to recycling which is now at 80% and industrial emissions which have fallen, but regarding rivers, our performance has been poor. It finds that “52% of species are in favourable status but only 9% of habitats are in favourable status.” Compared with the first EPA report in 1996, the percentage of 'highest quality' rivers fell from 4.8% to 0.7%. The number of sites discharging untreated sewage fell from 95 to 43, but this is 43 too many. The report outlines that “we face particular challenges in meeting our climate change commitments and in the implementation of a number of Directives designed to protect the environment.” The report is long, 234 pages, and dense with information.
In conclusion, a mixed year, the warmest on record, has seen some species boom while others, like the curlew, the pearl mussel, the hen harrier and the salmon, are continuing to decline. The weather is unpredictable now and likely to continue so. On the positive side, citizen science has been thriving this year and more people are interested in participating in nature surveys than ever before. Mobile apps are allowing the public to quickly identify more different species of plants and animals than ever before and log them digitally, providing researchers with accurate information. This will help with conservation efforts to be more precise giving them a degree of certainty which should allow farmers room to work without interference.
We look forward to 2017 and hope that a balance can be found between the needs of farmers and those of wildlife, for we are all part of nature.