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Woolly Maggots

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.

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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.

 

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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.

Rewilding a Charred Landscape…

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(Copyright: http://www.crossexaminer.co.uk/archives/8257 the examiner)
There was a guy I used to know. He used to say he’d rather ask for forgiveness than for permission. I didn’t like him much.
There is a similar train of thought in the Irish landscape.
Burn first, then they can’t do shit. There’s nothing to save, no special interest, scientific, or scenic.
If you burn the habitat, then there are no special species to protect, and you can put up all the wind turbines you like.
(Full disclosure: I love wind turbines. If there were decent populations of birds, I think the wind turbines wouldn’t be a problem. In Spain I see hen harriers every weekend in the wheat fields on my way to my family’s village, and the place is surrounded by windmills.)
Since the start of the season (take your pick – burning season or prohibition on hedge cutting and burning season, depending on your inclination), we have had what seem like dozens of out-of-control fires burning across the country.
The idea is that if you burn the fuck out of it, nobody will bother you about saving it. How can we rewild a charred landscape? If it is dust and a few blades of grass, nobody will tell me to take care of the toads, or the curlews, or the corncrake. If there’s no gorse, never mind birch, how can those boyos contemplate bringing back the lynx, or anything else.
People (the ones with a brain) are appalled, of course, and are waiting for the relevant authorities to take action, to prosecute the culprits and make an example of them.
Needless to say, fuck all has been done about it.
It’s Ireland, after all.
Some politicians have called for wasting time by creating task forces to regulate something already explicitly illegal.
The Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht has claimed it’s not her bag, baby, despite all logical and legal arrows pointing to the fact that it is her fucking bag, baby and burden to shoulder and she better get her fucking finger out. http://www.thejournal.ie/gorse-fires-heather-humphreys-2065294-Apr2015/
The Irish Wildlife Trust (great people, and I’ll be donating 10% of my royalties from Peter and the Little People to them) have produced a great video to clarify this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jHry6wIMYcw
And as we watch the country go backwards instead of forwards, the great shame is that farmers don’t see they are kicking themselves in the arse along with every one else. It is their own communities which are dying, their kids leaving the country to go to the cities, because there is nothing stay at home for.
Yet burning only loses revenue. A recent letter to the West Cork Times shown on the IWT facebook page showed that tourism is not compatible with burnt ground, that people won’t go to Ireland to see a charred landscape.
And yet, rewilding could bring back so much money and prosperity. Just two white-tailed eagles were worth a million in tourist revenue over the last two years, because people go there to see a beautiful creature restored to its former habitat and living wild in Ireland.
If the fucker who kills them could only see that he is only losing a few quid for a lamb mostly only in his imagination – because they probably won’t attack his animals anyway, and definitely won’t if he just locks them up well during lambing season or keeps a proper eye on them. On the other hand, his kids can get some of that money, and the much more to come as word spreads like wildfire, if he stops the stupid practices of a regressive worldview, and embraces regrowth, regeneration, and rewilding.