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.
So I’m working on edits to my novel, Peter and the Little People. This will be my seventh published book, none of them seem to be in the same genre – this one way different to the rest; my first children’s novel. I think it might be my last children’s novel. At least, I assumed it would be when I wrote it. The idea seemed perfect for a children’s book, but whether I am a children’s novel writer, I am not at all sure. I wish I could put my books in a handy category, but I can’t yet. Only the characters’ awareness, and love, of the natural world around them unites these very different stories. In that, they are all my children.
I also assumed I’d never write another young adult book when I finished The Soul of Adam Short, but I’m in the middle of writing another one now. I got the idea for a new one when I watched the profusion of gorse fires across Ireland last April, and it seemed an issue that teenagers might be likely to tackle rather than shake their heads and get on with their day.
Readers will know I’ve pledged to donate 10% of my royalties to WWF, the World Wildlife Fund. For Peter and the Little People, I also plan to give a further 10% to IWT, the Irish Wildlife Trust, which advocates for wildlife on the island of Ireland, and whose work Peter, and the Little People, would most certainly support. The Little People remember the animals with which we once shared our island, and are dismayed when Peter tells them they’re gone from every corner of it.
I don’t want to reveal too much about the story, but it is for kids and as long as you promise not to tell them before they get a chance to read it, I can tell you that there is a happy ending which is open to a sequel – which I never envisioned until my editor mentioned she’d like to see how Peter grew up.
Instead of the work to rewild Ireland, and return those missing species to it, for the benefit of the ecosystem, the delight of the Little People, Peter, Gemma and all the rest of us, which I might have the pleasure of writing about, it seems that some humans are not quite finished exterminating as much wildlife as they can.
Our native red deer of Killarney National Park, one of the very few symbols we have of wild Ireland, of the wildlife people come to Ireland to see, the image of which was put on our Punt coins when we had our own currency, are under attack from a group of Kerry politicians.
They are calling for a cull of an already tiny population for dubious reasons, and just yesterday, the IWT released a press-release describing how this is an indication of a move to treat wildlife as vermin, to depreciate their value and blame them for any perceived problems we may encounter with them. (http://www.iwt.ie/press-release-deer-culls-symptomatic-of-increased-verminisation-of-our-wildlife)
Photo: By Ken Billington (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
One Kerry senator has since declared that just the sika (an introduced species that is found in more parts of Ireland now than the native – and park escaped – red deer) should be culled, despite the fact that no evidence exists that the deer have caused any problems, and the fact that these deer are harvested every year both inside and outside the Killarney National Park. He also wants to fence in a section of the national park to restrict deer movement across a road that traverses the park, rather than ask motorists to cease speeding along that section.
How can we hope to rewild our island when this level of hatred of wildlife exists among our elected officials, when our representatives are so ignorant of the realities of wild animals, and are absolutely unwilling to give an inch in any real or perceived conflict, but instead prefer to bulldoze the wildlife out of the way. How can any children’s book have a happy ending when they are so willing to make vanish from our land the very things that children love – the wild animals and plants that we all know make life so much more worth living than any book we can read them or give them for Christmas, or any video game or toy they could get either.
If Peter does grow up under the tutelage of the Little People, I can see him becoming a very angry young man…