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The Attraction to Sheep Fields

I wrote this poem after a recent weekend away – just a 30 min drive to a little village. It made me think of why sometimes we’re not aware of what we’re missing with our bare, biodiversity impoverished agricultural landscape, especially in Ireland.

Sheep pastures rolling up the hill. A delight to look at, despite having few thing worth looking at in them.

            

The Pull of Pastures

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This scenery spread out from the village, splashed

With sun, fills one with joy of a morning:

An unfiltered boon as we run to the pool

Through fields of wheat under the evergreen

Oak-clad steeper slopes and hearing the hidden

Mistle thrush and goldfinch from the thistles,

Tangled juniper thorns and brambles 

Enticing animals excitingly close

To our gardens along such scrubbed inclines

That goats would grub but tractors cannot grade.

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The grazing sheep and cattle have gone,

Without battle, deer and boar and other

Beasts browse, but when by driving north

An hour I arrive in another world, where

Fields unfold before one: green grass rolling

Up slopes to autumnal oaks or out flat past

Hedgerows – or even if there’s nothing else

To be seen but green dotted with cowpats

And sheep shit – that simple fact gives gravity,

Pulls me towards such pastures, like a string

Tied within, knotted well when life was spring.

the village of Oskotz not too far north of Pamplona, but a different climate to the village where I normally go, which grows wheat while this grows sheep.

It’s this kind of feeling that gives Ireland its “green” image… it sometimes may as well be painted green for all the life it has other than cattle and sheep. But we love what we know, and unfortunately we’ve been educated to love a barren ecosystem, and younger people are growing up even worse than us older folk.

Is it possible to bring back species where men are still farming?

 

Nature is, so far, waiting to return, as soon as we, humans get out of its way. In a damaged form in still exists even in Europe in between the farms and across their mosaic of monocultures. Recently, I read the good news that many species of large mammal have returned to the abandoned areas around Chernobyl that I’ve talked about before: https://davidjmobrien.wordpress.com/2014/03/25/chernobyl-and-rewilding-islands-2/

Meanwhile in Ireland, the hen harrier, a protected raptor has hardly been out of the news recently – and it’s nearly all bad news.

 

The first article I read suggested that farmers be given money to compensate them for protecting hen harriers in Special Protection Areas. This seemed ridiculous, if not abhorrent to me. After all, am I compensated for protecting schoolchildren from bullies? No, it’s part of me obeying the law like the rest of us have to obey the laws. This smacked of a blackmailing protection racket – pay us to protect the birds, or you might find the birds are dying out there.

When I read that a Scottish game keeper was found guilty of killing goshawks and other predators of gamebirds he was raising, I wonder why we, too, can’t simply protect our endangered and vulnerable species by enforcing the laws that are there to protect them, rather than paying protection money to those who would view them with a caustic eye.

However, it seems apparent that unfortunately, our little island, while too small, too built up and densely populated for wolves or other large animal to be released into, is indeed wild and deserted enough that wildlife crime is virtually impossible to prevent or prosecute.

The negative view of the hen harrier in Ireland just seemed to increase. Farmers and other unscrupulous landowners who see such birds as a barrier to them planting forestry or installing wind turbines simply make such barriers disappear. That’s if they are unlucky enough to have their land selected for protection because the species was still there when the sites were designated: just good habitat didn’t qualify, so those who’d killed off the birds in the first place were in a better position. And kill off the birds some did. Just a week later the headlines proclaimed that a much-studied and named hen harrier was shot.

 Heather_dead_Barry_ODonoghue_NPWS Heather the hen harrier: picture copyright Barry O’Donoghue NPSW

 

It seems that there is an impasse here. Ignorance and fear and lack of resources make it almost inevitable that our wild birds and mammals lose out on this island. From a Trinity College professor going on national radio and making a show of himself with inaccurate information about all sorts animals, including raptors, to the fact that the huge deer poaching problem is beyond the capability of the National Parks and Wildlife Service to handle, to the illogical farm supplement system, everything conspires against our wildlife.

Some farmers cling on to a way of life that perhaps has changed from an occupation to a pastime, in that there’s little money to be made from upland sheep farming, and they are only kept alive by subsidies. If these subsidies were used to make farmers wildlife guardians and protectors of habitats (though allowing scrub forest in my view is better than keeping prime hen harrier habitat, since it will eventually allow even more emblematic species to thrive) then we wouldn’t have these clashes. Turning from sheep to forests and wind turbines is a way to stay on the land, but if there were good sturdy populations of hen harriers, there would be less need to ban turbines on their habitat and we should be encouraging forests for wildlife as well as for timber.

Believing that you have to remove the wildlife to stay on the land because every little penny counts is sad, but could be alleviated by compensation where that wildlife does indeed financially impact the farm. Unfortunately, often such conflict is only in the human’s mind: foxes, though widespread, really inflict tiny amounts of damage on lamb numbers, white tailed eagles just aren’t a threat to them, and yet they get shot and poisoned because of this perception.

Finally, doing away with the local wildlife because it causes inconvenience and you don’t believe you should have to bother about preserving it (exemplified by the current movement to allow hedge cutting in summer) has to be something that people will reject because they are afraid of being caught and punished. Wildlife crime has to be considered just that. That will mean enforcing the law. At the moment, too many people think they can carry on doing what they want regardless of how the world around them has changed. I wrote about this before. Catching the culprits and making examples of them will not only give pause, but will eventually change mindsets. And if a farmer disagrees with the new kind of farming, then he should perhaps get out of the game. Most teachers who started working when you could smack a child kept teaching when corporal punishment was banned. Some kept hitting the kids now and then (I’m sure many had similar experiences to me), but eventually even they stopped or they left the profession. Now, the very idea of hitting a kid is equally abhorrent as that of poisoning a white-tailed-eagle that the government spent thousands of euros and man-hours reintroducing for the good of the country and its citizens. Or should be.