Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 28 August 2014

Last flight of the curlew

The sound of the curlew stirred Rabbie Burns' soul. But we could be the last generation to wake to its solitary song, says Chris Murphy

Have you heard the cry of the curlew? I tell you I would rather we lost the entire contents of every art gallery in the whole world than lose forever the cry of the curlew."

This is how the poet Alastair McIntosh feels about one bird and about extinction. Sure, there are terrible things happening in the world, but how can the curlew, or the lapwing for that matter, slip quietly into oblivion without mention of a crime having been committed in the countryside? These birds are part of our heritage for heaven's sake.

I was recently at the Royal Dublin Society's (RDS) launch of Bird Habitats in Ireland; the setting was grand, the sandwiches first-rate, only the message was hard to swallow: Ireland's wild places are taking a hammering.

Credit to the RDS for conjuring up the atmosphere of a christening party, not a wake. Speaker after speaker was describing calamitous declines in the populations of some of Ireland's most iconic birdlife.

In winter, as the curlew probes for lugworms on Belfast Lough's grey mudflats, its beauty may not always be apparent. Come spring, in a heathery glen, and no one could fail to be moved by this bird's long drawn-out trembling song, or its air dance as it rises up above its territory and falls to earth on uplifted wings.

Rabbie Burns wrote that he had "never heard the loud solitary whistle of a curlew on a summer noon ... without feeling an elevation of soul".

The curlew's rapid demise and that of the lapwing is shocking. In Northern Ireland, the number of breeding birds has fallen from more than 4,000 pairs in 1987 to perhaps a few dozen in 2012.

Birdwatch Ireland, the Republic's largest voluntary nature conservation body, is now predicting the curlew will become the next Irish species to disappear.

Habitat loss is likely to be a big factor in the birds' decline. Raised and blanket bogs continue to be degraded as if there never existed the legislative power to protect them, while unsustainable levels of grazing have had a devastating effect on fragile uplands, leaving moorland from Antrim and Down to Cork and Kerry scoured beyond recognition.

A viable population of curlews survives in the Glenwhirry Valley, north of Ballyclare, where the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds is working closely with hill farmers to improve their habitat.

Elsewhere, it is hard to see how the curlew can hang on for much longer. And it is not alone. The cuckoo, roseate tern and red-billed chough could all soon be extinct in Northern Ireland.

There is now only one pair each of this beautiful tern and the charismatic crow. And when did you last hear a cuckoo?

Politicians pride themselves on Ireland's priceless green image. But scratch the surface of their environmental stewardship and how much of this image is not simply a 'green wash'?

Whether in creating an independent Environmental Protection Agency, enacting the Marine Bill, or establishing National Parks, Northern Ireland can take little pride in lagging so far behind the rest of the UK.

In Britain, the curlew was given full protection in 1981; it took another 30 years for it to be taken off the quarry list here.

Additional factors implicated in the decline of our birds and other wildlife, such as the Irish hare and Atlantic salmon, include pollution, climate change and unsustainable methods of commercial fishing.

Fifty thousand seabirds die every year off western Ireland on longline hooks belonging to a single Spanish fishery, while three of Ireland's most famous seabird colonies are now thought to be rat-infested: Lambay Island off Dublin, Puffin Island in Kerry and Great Saltee, Wexford.

Even the creme de la creme of Ireland's freshwater wetlands - the mighty Lough Neagh and the sleepy Shannon Callows - have now lost much of the birdlife that once made them so special.

The former's huge rafts of diving duck have mysteriously disappeared, while the latter's breeding wader community is now largely confined to one small island.

Both these wetlands have now lost their corncrakes. In spite of their best efforts over more than 20 years of administering government grants to farmers, conservationists in Ireland -led by RSPB and Birdwatch Ireland - have been unable to halt the corncrake's decline. This means we will probably be the last generation in Ireland ever to have a chance of waking up to the sound of Crex crex.

The erosion of habitats has been going on forever, only the pace has changed. Since the launch of the European Year of Conservation in 1970, there has been a 40% decline in the number of the world's species. Conservation is still in its infancy and it cannot keep up with this rate of extinction.

Bodies like the RSPB and Birdwatch Ireland are trying to address this whittling away of our wild places, while the National Trust in Northern Ireland endeavours to protect some of the north's finest stretches of coastline. They need all the help we can give them.

And what price is Ireland's natural heritage? Dr Liam Lysaght, director of the National Biodiversity Data Centre, says that biodiversity pumps €2.6bn (£2.1bn) into the Republic's coffers.

Only a fool would risk spoiling something as valuable and precious as our natural heritage. For the sake of the curlew, the salmon, the Irish hare and Rabbie Burns's soul, it's time we stopped taking it for granted.

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