Last week the cuckoos started coming back from Africa. I loved listening to their call echo over the patchwork of pastures and meadows, an always uplifting soundtrack to early summer. Meadow pipits, some of whose eggs will be evicted from their nests by baby cuckoos, also sing. As May sets in, the chorus of birdsong reaches a crescendo, as birds eagerly mate, defend their territory and tend to clutches of eggs and nestlings. The most enthusiastic songs begin at the first light of day, mainly by the males, announcing to the world that they have crossed the night, that the territory is still theirs and that they may even be available for prospecting females.
Among Ireland’s most melodious songbirds are the skylark, which sings its intricate melodies from the air; black caps who return from Africa every summer, also particularly accomplished singers; and the blackbirds with their moving tunes. Swifts, swallows and house swallows have also just returned from a winter away, gliding gracefully through the sky, picking up thousands of gnats as they go.
I find listening to the effusive energy of birdsong in May to be both uplifting and reassuring, as is watching the swallows swoop overhead. Scientific evidence indicates that nature experiences like these are an antidote to stress and central to our physical and mental well-being.
But over the past 50 years Ireland has seen dramatic changes in the landscape and major declines in the populations of many native bird species. Birds give a good indication of the general health of the natural environment. So when there is a general decline in the diversity and abundance of many of our birds, there is cause for concern.
Each year the Countryside Bird Survey monitors the most common breeding birds in the Irish landscape. The science-based citizen survey is conducted and coordinated by BirdWatch Ireland and funded by the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS). Across the country, birders provide data on the birds in their study areas, primarily based on the calls and songs they hear. Some species are doing well, such as blackcaps and colored goldfinches. But other familiar farmland birds such as the skylark, greenfinch and stone cat are showing serious declines. For many of our native birds, their habitats are disappearing so quickly that they cannot cope with the changes. Even starlings, those familiar birds loved for their impressive murmurings, have declined significantly in recent decades.
Wading birds, such as curlews, lapwings and snipes, are experiencing some of the most severe declines of all. By the 1970s, these birds were prevalent. Of the twelve species of wading birds that breed in Ireland, eleven are currently in serious decline. The breeding curlew is on the brink of extinction in Ireland.
Many birds of prey are also experiencing alarming declines, including kestrels, barn owls, hen harriers and merlins, Ireland’s smallest birds of prey. These top predators are sentinels of the health of the natural environment. Most of the declines can be attributed to changes in land use and the intensification of agriculture, which have reduced the extent and quality of many habitats needed by these majestic birds. Of course, there’s also good news, like the reintroductions of white-tailed eagles and golden eagles, and the spread of buzzards, but that doesn’t make up for the loss of owls or kestrels.
Unfortunately, bird populations are not alone in showing such alarming trends. Bats, bees, butterflies, dragonflies, wild salmon and even sharks at sea: almost every animal group we assessed is affected by a multitude of rapid changes that humans have imposed on nature in recent times. decades. All in one generation.
The good news is that there is still time to reverse these trends and save many species from extinction. There are many excellent examples of effective conservation initiatives in recent years, many of which are community led and operated. The BRIDE project in North East Co Cork is implementing a promising results-based approach to conserving, improving and restoring habitats in intensive lowland agricultural land. Pollinator projects across the country bring people together to protect and create habitats for bees and butterflies, including the many communities, gardeners, businesses and farmers who are taking action under the All Ireland Pollination Plan.
Birdwatch Ireland has carried out special conservation projects for terns since the 1980s which have brought these amazing birds, the world’s most impressive long-distance migrants, back here from the brink of extinction. Dozens of peatland restoration projects have been launched in recent years, a big step up from the two restoration projects launched by the Irish Peatland Conservation Council in the 1990s. There are now 10 operational Rivers Trusts in Ireland, each being a community-led charity set up by local people to care for their local rivers.
These are just a few examples of the many conservation initiatives underway across Ireland. Every project that protects and restores bird habitats and biodiversity shines a light on what is possible. But most of them have been striving for success, swimming against the tide for many years. Each of these projects, and many others not mentioned here, demonstrate how conservation can be achieved, by combining the knowledge of experts, the insight of environmental groups and the enthusiasm of individuals and communities.
Last week, the long-promised plan for the renewal of the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) was announced. After decades of under-resourcing and neglect, and despite staff commitment, it is widely accepted that the NPWS has long been inadequate. Minister Malcom Noonan’s announcement was widely welcomed and is expected to create an organization with ‘a strong voice to speak on behalf of nature’.
A well-functioning agency will assist in the effective implementation of so many conservation initiatives already underway. With a combination of structural reforms, additional staff and increased resources, the NPWS may finally be able to engage broadly and protect populations of birds, bees, butterflies, whales, sharks and the myriad of habitats in which they are found. They are also the basis of our health and prosperity.
Ireland is very lucky to have such a beautiful range of very special species and habitats within its territory. If this action plan for SNEP is properly implemented, there is hope. And not a moment too soon.
- Anja Murray is an environmentalist, broadcaster, regular presenter on ‘Eco Eye’ on RTÉ 1 and writes the weekly ‘Nature File’ on RTÉ Lyric FM.