21 Mar 2017
Driving through the overwhelmingly rural Irish landscape the first impression visitors get is how green the countryside looks. When we are returning home from a warmer, drier location a glance from the plane window (if cloud is absent!) often causes us to do a double-take at the greenness of the land below. In fact, the national landscape is almost a caricature of green!
Advertisers exploit this greenness as a synonym for natural purity and wholesomeness. TV ads for Irish milk showing cattle grazing peacefully in green pastures evoke that sense of purity and freshness the advertiser wants to associate with milk. Dappled cattle munching peacefully in gently rolling fields provides the scenic backdrop for a glass of fresh milk, gleaming snow white, promising natural vitality.
The truth is very different. Your fresh, natural Irish milk is, well, not natural. For the most part the cattle are feeding on a small number, perhaps even one, species of grass (grass does not usually occur naturally as a single species throughout a field) and this grass is fed on a diet of chemicals. The farmer uses a spreader, a machine that sprays granular fertiliser on the field, typically at the start of the growing season in March. The fertiliser contains phosphorous, nitrogen, potassium and sulphur. The grass responds quickly; the broad-leaved species such as Cock’s-foot and Perennial Rye-grass, grow aggressively, out-competing the fine-bladed grasses like Sheep’s Fescue. Flowers are mostly wiped out, apart from a few robust species that can survive the competitive response to fertiliser application. Common Dandelion, thankfully, is one of these flowers. Where grass is grown for silage, the grass is cut in June and sometimes again, in September/October.
What you see in an ungrazed field where grass is grown for silage is a uniform (single height, single colour) sward. The uniform sward height, the low number of grass species and the low number of flower species eliminates habitat for butterflies, moths, bees and most invertebrates. A visit in summer to such a field is a miserable experience for a nature lover. The emptiness is haunting for older naturalists who remember the 1970’s and before.
You only realise what has been lost from most of the landscape when you find an unsprayed grassland, like the one pictured below. However, some recovery is possible. Highly sensitive species, like orchids, might be gone for ever from modified sites but some beautiful native grasses and flora will return if the ground is helped and allowed to recover. The cessation of fertiliser application, removal of excess fertility through multiple cutting and removal of cuttings and scarifying the surface will allow the return of some of the plants that butterflies and other invertebrates need. Cattle will graze very happily on this land too; they will yield good milk; cattle reared for beef may not be super-sized in the same time as they would if fed on chemically fertilised grassland.
Biodiversity in a farmed landscape can be achieved by balancing the needs of farming and nature. This can be done, and is done, in the Burren and especially in eastern Europe. Why not here? If the drive towards chemical agriculture continues we may well see the extinction of all sensitive butterflies from the farmed landscape and severe reductions in more generalist species but even these may suffer extinction in the event that farming manages to eliminate all grassland plants not eaten by livestock. If this happens, we will lose the birds that feed on butterfly and moth larvae; it is believed that the lack of insect prey is already affecting populations of that once most familiar of birds, the House Sparrow.
What to do? Never use chemicals in your garden, buy organic produce whenever possible, mention your support for chemical free farming whenever you meet a member of the farming community. Where you work and live, advocate the planting of native trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants on the premises and avoidance of chemicals in managing the outdoor environment. Leave a “wild” area on the green space in your estate for native species to flourish; if moving to a brand new estate, tell the builder about the value of native Irish trees and shrubs; give him a list, from this website (see http://www.butterflyconservation.ie/wordpress/?page_id=33) or from the Tree Council website, on the trees that he should grow. Make nature part of your life; develop a wildlife garden, not as an isolated oasis but as a link in your local landscape so that wild creatures can move and not be stranded in a isolated or diminishing refuge. We need a build a nature-friendly, people-friendly landscape to enhance not just wildlife, but your life.