Above: This image encapsulates the problem – the writer is fly fishing on a stream that is choked up with plant growth, cattle look on with full access to the water and no fencing to protect the riparian zones.
The farmer’s lobby group is one of the most powerful in the country and they instill a fear into our politicians against speaking out about the damage that farming practices cause. Gary Robinson looks at what happens to the environment when our rivers run free with shit.
We have long been known as a clean nation with exceptionally good quality water in our rivers and lakes but can this view still be justified? It would appear not when one takes the time to consult the reports released by the Environmental Protection Agency, the State body charged with monitoring the quality of our water infrastructure for the Water Framework Directive (WFD).
The most recent report tells us that over 50% of our waterways need to be improved to bring them up to a ‘satisfactory’ status. It also stated that Ireland was unlikely to achieve its targets as set out by the EU’s WFD. Incidentally, at the last EU climate change target seminars our representatives went grovelling to seek a derogation from our environmental targets. Why? Because our agricultural sector is expanding with the introduction of Irish meat and milk to Asian markets along with other developments.
The amount of land set aside for agriculture in Ireland is approximately 4.2 million hectares which is 64% of the country, with land usage in every county in the country being dedicated towards the industry. The vast majority of farming in Ireland relates to cattle with approximately 80% of agricultural land devoted to grass for cattle grazing.
With so much land set aside for cattle it should come as no surprise that the Irish herd is just over 6.95 million cows (CSO, 2015). Just fewer than seven million cattle create a lot of by products and most will be familiar with the CO2 emissions from their rear end. Not so obvious are the threats to our water. Many policies in this country are tapered towards the agricultural sector and there are many instances where agriculture can be attributed towards creating and compounding environmental damage.
Let’s take a one of the more common pollution events that arise from agricultural practices and how they affect water quality; indeed the EPA report cited agriculture as the most common source of pollution incidents in our waterways. Nutrient runoff is a huge problem in Irish waterways and is a product of spreading excessive amounts of fertilisers.
Heavy rainfall events, which we all know are common, wash a lot of these nutrients off the land and into our rivers where the excess of particularly nitrogen and phosphorus fuel plant growth. The EPA cite eutrophication, a direct result of nutrient enrichment which give waters a green ‘pea soup” appearance, as our most pressing water quality issue of which excessive plant growth is the main symptom.
Too many plants doesn’t sound like a bad thing, does it? Particularly when there are trees being felled at a horrific rate and land is being cleared of its biodiversity. The problem with excessive nutrient runoff from farms reaching our waterways is that not only does it result in extra plants; the growth can be so spectacular as to choke up the waterway altogether which has many differing impacts.
Sunlight can’t penetrate through the water column which causes the death of many subsurface plants and lowering of water temperatures, drastically altering the makeup of the aquatic environment. The hydrology of the river may change as water finds the path of least resistance. Feeder streams and channels are important fish spawning sites but an overabundance of plants can prevent access to the valuable gravel that some fish species need to spawn in.
None of this sounds too alarming and it’s an easy fix, right? Let’s have a look at the Lough Corrib example. There has been a marked decline in brown trout numbers in the lake according to official figures released by Inland Fisheries Ireland in their own survey reports. This decline is particularly prevalent in the north east of the lake, a section of lake where the feeder streams and spawning tributaries flow over rich soils that are used heavily by the agricultural sector.
A quick stroll along these streams in summer will reveal waterways that are choked up with excessive plant growth. Indeed, the Don of trout fishing in Ireland, Mr. Peter O’Reilly, advises that most of these rivers are best fished early season because by mid-April it can be impossible to penetrate the weed growth which is out of control.
Clearly eutrophication is having an impact on fish and their spawning sites. The obvious thing would be to protect the riverbanks to prevent the nutrients reaching the water in the first place, right? That’s what most forward thinking countries would do but why don’t they do that here?
The farmer’s lobby group is a powerful one indeed and perhaps it is this that instils a fear into our politicians when it comes to speaking out about the damage that current farming practices are causing in Ireland. With 272,000 people working on farms this equates to a sizeable portion of the vote in a small country. Perhaps speaking the truth and exposing the problem is regarded as political suicide in this country? Party comes first, to hell with the rest and morals or ethics will have nothing to do with it!
The manner in which EU farm inspections are carried out is farcical. Imagine having a ‘surprise’ inspection of your farm to see that everything is in order but the only twist is that you know the inspection date six months in advance. That seems a system that is purely there to facilitate the farmer. It is incredibly easy for everything to be above board when you get six months’ notice of a ‘surprise’ inspection. As he brushed aside the issue a Galway FF gleefully told me that “pollution is diffuse so difficult to pinpoint” and even when there are spills that can be traced there is usually very little done to the perpetrator by way of reprimanding.
It is incredibly easy for everything to be above board when you get six months’ notice of a ‘surprise’ inspection. As he brushed aside the issue a Galway FF gleefully told me that “pollution is diffuse so difficult to pinpoint” and even when there are spills that can be traced there is usually very little done to the perpetrator by way of reprimanding.
Rather than raise the issue with the agricultural sector and bring them to account for the damage being done by malpractice to our waterways, the twisted logic in Ireland has designated a freshwater predatory fish, the pike, as the sole cause of the woes of the brown trout. Every year a culling exercise is carried out on pike in our waters at great expense.
Only a couple of days ago Inland Fisheries Ireland, a State body, released a four page statement expressing their intention to spend close to €120,000 in 2017 eradicating pike from our waters. Without the column space to explain the folly of this notion I will summarise it by comparison to slaughtering African lions in an attempt to look after gazelle numbers.
This utter waste of money could have been used to improve and protect the feeder streams. If the agri-sector didn’t have the free reign that it does, the funds could have been used far more constructively elsewhere.
Mismanagement of our natural land and aquatic resources of bad decisions through the past few decades is costing us dearly as a nation, environmentally, socially and economically to the detriment of the majority and for the benefit of a minority. Bad management is seeing a huge reduction in visiting anglers and tourism revenue as summarised by Dermot Ogle, a UK resident, “The mismanagement of Irish waterways sees me spending my time and money on the pristine waters of the Swedish Baltic”.
He is not the only one to vote with his feet. His views are echoed by many angling groups as can be seen in a statement from the Irish Federation of Pike Angling Clubs: “IFPAC notes as a body representing pike anglers, and anglers in general, the importance of these feeder streams to the overall health and biodiversity of our waterways.
Furthermore it has been well highlighted by various reports from the EPA, and other government agencies that the activities of agriculture accounts for a large proportion of the pollution, erosion to feeder streams – apart from municipal activities. The well informed angler is more than aware how important feeder streams are to the overall health of an ecosystem, from providing spawning beds, nursery habitat for juvenile fish, etc. Filter streams also provide an important role of protecting against floods, filter pollutants, and provide flood and habitat for many types of fish. Economically, protecting feeder streams particularly for their role in fishing, hunting, agriculture and recreation. Indeed, fishing in Ireland alone generates approximately €750 million per year to the economy. So, on this point alone it would be absolute folly to ignore protecting these vitally important systems from pollution, erosion, etc.
Ireland needs to wake up to managing its environmental resources far more responsibly and sympathetically with all stakeholders, not just the agricultural sector. Nobody owns the land, we just care for it to pass on to the next generation. At our current rate of pollution and biodiversity loss, they’re not going to be happy with what they inherit.
Check out our piece on environmental concerns up North here.