A little poem as we note the start of spring here.
The bats indeed did come out that night and now, a week later, there are lizards and frogs about, as well as cranes coming back north and storks reclaiming their nests.
Leave Off the Light
Leave off the lights
At least until the light leaves;
Let us feel it while it lasts,
Catch sight of birds flying to roosts, crying
As it dies, and perhaps bats will wheel past.
Let night descend inside, too, before
Filling our night with brightness,
Let the life outside touch our lives a little,
For at last there is light as twilight arrives.
I’ve favoured a return of our wild megafauna to our mountains for some time, now as a general wish to see wildlife flourish on our island. This includes letting the red deer extend their range beyond the small confines of Killarney NP, where it seems only those with friends in the right places and a pile of cash in their back pocket can get to hunt stags. It includes getting wild boar back, as far as our scant natural habitat is still suitable for them. And of course in includes letting the wolf roam the uplands, as those uplands regain their balance in terms of flora as well as fauna.
There are clear barriers to such steps. One of them is the lack of that suitable habitat, and another, connected to that, is the extent of sheep farming.
Sheep in a field. See any trees? Only habitat for tellytubbies. Photo by Paul Mutton.
I have long marvelled at the fact that sheep are still farmed in Ireland. I’ve spent decades hearing about and seeing how destructive they are to the uplands – anyone whose seen the golf green fields where farmers have them on the lowlands can imagine their effect on a wild landscape. When I was still in college in the early 90s we learned about overgrazing at important conservation and recreation areas of Ireland (like the slopes of Errigal Mountain in Donegal, Connemara NP). Some call them woolly maggots, for obvious reasons.
Sheep in the mountains. Hard to spot a tree here, either. Photo from http://snowdonia-active.com/news.
Simultaneously, I’ve spent decades pushing these animals ahead of me, both in cars on the roads and while trying to hunt or just hill walk without them scattering every shred of wildlife I might have otherwise had the chance to see. I even spent an hour saving one, which had got its leg caught in the wooden slats of a footbridge. It gave me scant thanks, and I was sure the farmer wouldn’t have been too pushed either way, given the huge numbers of dead animals you see while walking in our mountains. But I didn’t think letting it die of thirst was a valid option for anyone with a conscience. If my car jack wasn’t able to push up the slat, I was going to smash its skull in with a wrench, or a rock. A better end, despite the visual image you’re probably conjuring up right now…
Anyway, I remember a farmer telling me more than a decade ago that the wool was barely worth the effort to shear the sheep, and that the merchant only took it from him under no obligation to actually return money to the farmer. If it sold, he gave a portion of the sale, if not, then he… I’m not sure what he’d have done with the wool – throw it out, donate it, or what.
I’ve only eaten lamb a few times in Ireland, and I never liked it much. How much lamb is eaten round here and how much a lamb is worth, I’ve no idea, but I never imagined it was much (again, seeing how little attention is paid to them on the hill).
George Monbiot has the numbers. He reckons it’s less than 1% of the British diet, and the wool has almost no value. And it’s probable that the flooding caused by overgrazed hillsides means less food is grown downhill than otherwise would be, meaning sheep grazing actually reduces agricultural production.
He’s submitted a whole list of problems with the current Common Agricultural Policy and its effects on the environment.
One of these is that without subsidies sheep farming on uplands would be so clearly a waste of time that the sheep would disappear from the mountains by themselves.
And if that happened, well, two obvious effects would be that there would be no problem with sheep kills by reintroduced wolves up there (down the slopes any remaining sheep are easily protected in electrified pens at night), and the deer and other fauna would have something to eat and habitat to hide in as they spread over a landscape currently almost devoid of plant cover.
And real money could flow into these areas from people who want to see the wildlife, just like the reintroduced red kite (hopefully right now spreading across and out from Wicklow) brought £8 million in tourism revenue to parts of Scotland.
Seems simple maths to me.
An Absence in Abundance
Lavender lays sideways under the weight of wind and blossom
But the bees clinging to the swaying stalks are few and far between.
An exuberance of blooms festoon the garden; from geraniums to clover,
But the butterflies are almost all white. Where is the abundance?
The humming profusion we should see before us?
The insects are ever scarcer on the farm – apart from houseflies –
And sparrows are ousting the house martins.
Those looking closely can see the cracks and give voice
To our misgivings that something’s got to give.
Five Minutes in Spring
Five minutes on a park bench
To catch sight of birds other than doves,
A walk along a tree-lined street
Instead of screen-staring upon a bus,
A pause between passing engines to
Actually hear the blackbird,
Lingering by a flowing fountain
To listen to the lovely gurgle,
A long gaze upon a hillside
Growing shades of green for grazing,
A halt, a hesitation, to inhale the
Heady horse chestnut scents;
Five minutes in spring, just five,
To remind us this here is life.
It’s been a busy few weeks here in Pamplona.
I’ve my children’s book, Peter and the Little People out today! You can get it here... https://museituppublishing.com/bookstore/index.php/museitup/fantasy/peter-and-the-little-people-detail
As well as that, I’ve a novella under the name JD Martins, One Night in Boston, out tomorrow! You can get that here… http://www.tirgearrpublishing.com/authors/Martins_JD/one-night-in-boston.htm
What with promoting these and my other books, and preparing a blogtour for One Night in Boston, as well as normal life stuff like end of school year, taking care of the kids and having a baptism, I’ve not had time to do much reading or writing, or getting a chunk of time to get out in the mountains.
But it’s vital to take just a few minutes as spring spins past to appreciate why we’re here, to pause to see just how fast life is flying by. Then get back to the kids and exam correcting, and the edits of the book you swore would be done by Christmas…
Out now on pre-order, with a discount, my new book, aimed at readers from 8 to 80 and parents who’d like to read to their kids a book they will enjoy themselves…
This is my fifth book under my own name.
Out on May 24th. Your kids’ll love it.
Here’s the blurb:
You’ve heard stories about Little People: leprechauns and their like. Ireland is full of people who’ve had strange experiences out in the fields in the early morning. All just tall tales and myths, of course.
At least, we assume so…
But Peter knows better.
A boy with a love of wildlife and talent for spotting animals, Peter often sees what he calls elves in the fields as he travels Ireland with his dad. Sometimes it’s just a flash as they drive by, but he catches sight of something too swift for most people to keep their eye on. And Peter is young enough to trust his own eyes more than the adults who tell him these creatures are not real.
When his family go to spend the summer with his granny on her farm, Gemma from the farm next door offers to show him the badger sett under an old Ring Fort. Peter accepts gladly. To his surprise and delight he finally gets a chance to do more than catch a glimpse of the Little People. Will the Little People be just as happy? Perhaps, when Peter learns about some plans for the farm, they might be.
10% of the Author’s Royalties will be donated to WWF, the World Wildlife Fund, and to IWT, the Irish Wildlife Trust.
I have decided to donate to IWT because they are the people who look after our Irish wildlife and ensure that the species Peter loves are protected from going the way of the animals the Little People used to see, and will remain in good health in the future.
Here’s an excerpt
When they travel in cars, most adults look at the road, to make sure that whoever is driving is doing it as well as they would if they sat at the steering wheel. Or else they watch for the signposts that tell you how far you are from the next town or where to turn off for Galway or Tullamore, if there is a junction coming up. Most children only look at the other cars—to see if they can spot a red one, or count how many white cars there are. Both adults and children look at the houses and people by the roadside. Few of them look at the trees and fields and hardly any look for animals.
Peter was an observant passenger, though. For this reason, he was more likely than most children to see the Little People. To Peter, seeing the Little People became very much like spotting a stoat or red squirrel. You had to be watching hard to know what you were looking for and to be able to pick it out from the leaves and twigs and grass around it. And you have to be satisfied with just a very quick glimpse.
As the mild winter ends, we’re still getting some snow, which is a sting for the bees and their blossoms…
But a few signs make me think of things, and remind me embrace the environment.
Spring Should be Here.
The blackbird has deemed
It propitious this St. Pat’s
To screw the snow and sing.
Sometimes when the traffic signal stops us
Those sixty seconds
Bring the most serenity to our day.
Too often taking a few minutes
To scribble down some new words,
Staring at the screen and soaring
In our imagination, but not taking
Time to just sit and watch the world;
Interacting with the environment,
Embracing our ecology.
I read an interesting article about rewilding today – calling it the “new Pandora’s box in conservation.”
Hardly a title to inspire confidence…
One problem the authors see with rewilding is that the term is fluid and quite ill-defined as yet. It would be better to firm up exactly what rewilding is and is not, and define what it aims to achieve.
I agree, as a scientist, that it would be better to know exactly what we are talking about.
But I think there is room for maneuvering yet.
Rewilding is a new term that has yet to come into its own. It has yet to capture the public consciousness.
And in order to let that happen, I think the term should be as broad as possible for as long as possible.
In fact, perhaps we can have two meanings – just like the word “theory” has two meanings – one in common parlance, and the other in scientific terms. It won’t be that problematic if we have a broad meaning for the wider public discussion and then a more precise, concise or even split terms for use in ecology – for example, the Palaeolithic rewilding, or passive rewilding as mentioned in the article.
I say this because what we don’t want to have happen is that the general public decide that rewilding is some scientific activity which only trained ecologists can pursue, or have a hand in, or a stake in.
Because we will need lots of rewilding, of all types, if we are to get through this century with functioning ecosystems. There are some, such as passive rewilding, which the general public can have a great, and direct, impact on. There are things they can do themselves at home, in addition to supporting more extensive projects and translocations by voting, signing petitions and going to visit places which have had formerly extinct species reintroduced.
An article in the Guardian today, about not mowing the lawn so often so that dandelions can flower and feed the multitude of insect species that rely on them highlights this.
As we live in a world steeped in pesticides, we will need the gardens of our suburbs and cities to give a refuge to the species which would otherwise die out. While research suggests that farmers should plant wildflowers themselves to aid keep pests down in their crops, it’s plain that insects like bees are suffering as we continue to spray.
Luckily, the terrain of the farms I visit near Pamplona makes wildflower verges almost unavoidable, though even here the number of butterflies seems to have plummeted in recent years.
To a certain extent, rewilding is just allowing that little slice of wildness to exist alongside our lives and our lawns, instead of keeping wilderness far from us as we push into that very wilderness.
The man on the street with a garden can help this rewilding, just as the building companies who can’t get financing to build on the lots they bought during the boom can let the weeds grow in the meantime. It might not provide habitat for wolves, or bison, but it can keep bees alive, let butterflies and lizards and small mammals survive.
Instead of even planting grass for lawns, home owners, and councils and building management companies, can plant wildflower meadows instead. I showed an example of one in Pamplona last summer. I look forward to it blooming again this spring.
Wildflower meadow planted in Pamplona park about to bloom in 2015
One type of rewilding that the article didn’t mention, but George Monbiot among others does, is rewilding ourselves – getting back in touch with the nature we have too long either ignored or tried to tie up, impound, mow short and neat. I’ve seen the kids approach this wildflower meadow in a much different way to how they’d approach a lawn. I’m sure you can imagine which they’re more excited by.
We might be disinclined to let our kids dig in the muck these days when everyone’s so obsessed with cleanliness, but allowing them romp through a few flowers will set us smiling more than any pretty new frock or well-maintained playground.
What child can resist making petal angels? And collecting conkers can be done in a clean frock.
And just as we might one day be delighted to have dandelions, we will be grateful for the general public’s work in keeping our lives just a little bit wild.
Last month the Irish Minister for Heritage, Heather Humphries, decided change the law to extend the season during which burning and cutting hedges and other vegetation will be permitted, despite the protestations of thousands.
Heather Humphries. The fake smile is probably because she knows we know she’s not qualified for the job we are paying her for…
Before this, farmers could cut and burn during February, then they had to wait until September to any further work of that nature on their land. This was to protect the wildlife, especially nesting birds.
But this year they can wait until March before burning, or start in August again. Though considered unnecessary by and large, this has happened because some farmers were burning illegally last year – what more elegant solution than to make it legal do conduct such burning?
I watched some of the debate in the Seanad on this legislation. It was frustrating, as well as hilarious at times, as some politicians tried to claim the change was necessary because hedgerows were taking over our country roads and making them impossible to walk – I’d say the speed at which cars travel the roads nowadays might be more important. There are roads I’d never cycle, never mind walk, which I did twenty years ago.
This extension to destruction season comes just as climate change means some birds are breeding earlier nowadays. This year has been an exceptionally mild winter and spring will come soon, and even stopping in March will affect some birdlife.
But though the rules have changed on the insistence and lobbying of some farmers and landowners, it does not mean that fires have to rage this year like they did (illegally) last year.
If the weather is warmer (and perhaps dry – it could happen!) now, then farmers can get their burning done even earlier than they used to. They don’t have to wait until after March just because they can. There is certainly no need to wait to get the hedge cutting done – ti’s something that can be done very quickly nowadays with the machinery available.
Hedgecutting in action. You don’t need months to get this done any more, but choose the wrong month and there will be a lot of bird nests getting cut in this particular hedge. Photo from http://www.dublinplanthire.ie
The farmers who care about the land (and there are a lot of them, despite how it sometimes seems) can keep obeying the spirit of the former law, rather than the letter of the new law. The law says we can drive at 100kmph in many places that we don’t even try reach that speed.
We can always do what we think is right, regardless of what the law says we can do. Plenty of anglers release their fish even when they can legally take them home. Some hunters let the fox slink away and just watch it, rather than take a shot, though they could legally shoot that fox, since it’s considered vermin (and would be asked to if the farmer was also watching).
If we are to rewild our lands and our lives, and indeed, keep alive the little bit of wildlife we have left out there, we have to rely on the good will, and good sense, of the majority in the face of the selfishness and, ultimately, as can see with climate change, idiocy of the minority.
In farming as in other matters we need people to do right because that’s the thing to do…. like avoiding paying taxes – if we all avoided paying our taxes like the elites do, every country would come to a halt.
And a majority of people wanted this legislation stopped. A majority of the senators I saw speaking were against it. But those in power pushed it through.
We can only hope that when they are gone from power, soon enough, this legislation can be reversed to rein in those few outliers who don’t give a monkeys about out, and their, environment.
Denmark, in addition to having wolves for the first time in centuries, now has European elk (Alces alces; the moose to Americans) for the first time in five thousand years. Talk about going back to the way things were. Well, it’s not all about going back to the way things were, as I will discuss in my next post. It’s about putting the animals to work, making this megafauna do what they’re best at – manipulating the habitat. The elk are going to help maintain a marsh by munching on the birch saplings, much like the cattle in the Burren in Ireland keep things cool for orchids and other important flora.
The Danes don’t seem to be asking themselves if they can rewild their land. They’re just doing it.
The Brits, are, though, asking if they can make Britain wild again. And the answer from most seems to be yes of course. I just read an interesting article on a blog about the matter of returning wolves to Scotland, and there are obstacles, but they can be overcome with a bit of political will.
Even in the US, which we might believe is wild enough, thank you very much, and where they are delisting the wolf from Endangered Species Protection as some scientists claim they have recovered enough to be controlled by individual states, they want to return wildlife to former ranges via the network of wildlife corridors that rivers provide.
If everyone else can do it, why can’t we? I think it was The Cranberries who asked that question back in the Nineties. We still have no good answer, but one has to come sometime.
If there’s one thing we have in Ireland it’s rivers and waterways.
Imagine fishing on the Grand Canal and watching a wolf walk by on the other side?
Now that would make me get up in the morning.