Larry Speight brings us his monthly column –
Caring for the countryside
When I was a boy growing up in Belfast the countryside was considered an exotic place. While the city was concrete, tarmac, factories, warehouses, office blocks, shops, expansive residential areas, litter on the streets, motor traffic congestion and foul air, particularly during the winter when burning coal to keep homes warm and heat water for the family weekly bath was the norm, the countryside, by comparison, was regarded as a place of purity and wildness
When on cycling tours through the countryside I particularly enjoyed the hedgerow lined roads aware that they were a source of autumn nutrition for people and wildlife in the form of various berries, seeds and nuts. Springtime was a celebration of colours when wildflowers and grasses appeared. In comparison to the city the countryside was replete with a rich variety of birds, mammals and insects. Rabbits were a common sight, part of a food web and the rivers and streams ran clear, many lined with trees and filled with aquatic life. There was heather, hills, lakes and woods with a mystic attached to them. The smells, sounds and the quiet were of a quality not found on the noisy city streets.
Another thing which at that time made the countryside alluring is that the stories country people told, their common phrases, the rhyme and cadence of their voices were markedly different from those heard in the city. These differences have long been diluted by the broadcasting media and a commuter lifestyle. Nevertheless, many city folk still visit the countryside as a tonic, somewhere to go to ‘get away from it all’, replenish themselves, touch base and in general have an enjoyable time.
Although in days gone by the countryside was considered by urbanities as a place apart we knew that there was an interdependency in that much of what we ate came from the local farms as their smell, flavors and the soil that clung to the root vegetables confirmed. Lettuce and tomatoes, gooseberries and strawberries meant that it was summer time and their taste was, as anyone who has a kitchen garden will know, incomparable to those grown in the mega polytunnels so prevalent across Europe today.
Much of what defined the countryside up until about the late 1970s has largely gone and few mourn this as few realise it. I was recently reminded when journeying through west Fermanagh of the increasing homogeneity and consequent bio-poverty of the countryside when I saw a large segment of a hedgerow that had been bulldozed and set alight. In the aftermath of persistent rain there were no flames amongst the carcass of recent habitat but rather the dismal sight of grey smoke rising and spreading which road users, birds and mammals, could only pass through with mouth and nostrils tightly shut. The word ‘harm’ came to mind to describe what I saw.
The hedgerows in County Fermanagh, and in fact across the whole of the island, are uprooted and burnt at a tremendous rate and replaced by desolate barbed wire fencing. There are no recent figures for the annual loss of hedgerows in Northern Ireland but in the Irish Republic, as reported by RTE News, 6,000 kilometers are destroyed every year. It is not only bio-rich hedgerows that are lost but broadleaf trees are regularly felled and are variously left to decay, set on fire or sawn-up for firewood. For those who care about the wondrous flora and fauna that is disappearing before our eyes, not to mention the fish kills caused by slurry, fertiliser, herbicide and pesticide run-off, this is desecration. In regard to the state of rivers in Northern Ireland the Belfast Telegraph, 11 December 2021, reports that “in 2021, zero river bodies achieved good or high overall status” and that the lakes were rated no better. The rivers, lakes and coastal waters in the Irish Republic have a similar rating.
Replacing hedgerows with a fence might be done to eliminate the need for regular hedge trimming and thus save time and money, it might also be done to prevent cattle and horses escaping onto the roads which can result in serious accidents, and bulldozing a stand of mature broadleaf trees might be a way to increase grazing land or grow more grass for silage. The agricultural economy has changed during my life-time and many will say that the efficiency achieved is for the better as prior to Putin’s war on Ukraine the price of food was the cheapest in living memory. If, however, I were a kingfisher, a curlew, a corncrake, a barn owl, a snipe, a sparrow hawk, an otter, a salmon, a trout, a hare, an orchid, a bee, a bluebell, an oak tree or a stream, I would think that the change has been disastrous.
One thing that our economic system is blind to is that there can be no economy without ecology. Unless we put the welfare of nonhuman nature at the heart of our economic decisions then it and us, especially our descendants, really do have a bleak future. The point we need to keep in mind is that the future is not prescribed as we are the authors of the type of society and countryside we want to live in.
To leave our descendants a countryside that is a repository of biodiversity and a place where farmers earn a good living producing tasty nutritious food we need to exercise our agency and refuse to be cogs in the giant nature-eating machine which is the international economic order. There are a number of ways we can do about this. We can take the baby step of planting and nurturing a variety of vegetable seeds this spring, and a toddler step would be to petition our Local Council to provide community allotments as well as regularly monitor the quality of the water in rivers and lakes and ensure the hedgerows are not trimmed out of season. The contact details of your local councilors are available on the internet.
As there are Local Council elections this May in Northern Ireland and next year in the Irish Republic voters have leverage through asking candidates in their ward what they have done, and will do if elected, to protect and enhance the ecological health of our countryside as well as provide their constituents with a resilient, bio-enhancing agricultural system. This is a urgent matter given that a 2020 survey by the UK Natural History Museum and the RSPB ranked Northern Ireland as the 12th worst country in the world for biodiversity, the Republic of Ireland was ranked 13th. Will the candidates, if elected, work to ensure that the Council increases biodiversity within the electoral boundary by 30 % by 2030, which is the target set by the COP15 biodiversity conference held last December in Montreal?
We can hardly expect our descendants to think well of us if our legacy to them is a countryside in which poisoned rivers flow, the soil is kept on life-support through expensive artificial chemicals and there is not a butterfly, bee or bird to be seen across the bland lines of fencing where bio-rich, sheltering, shadow casting, food providing, story inspiring hedgerows used to grow.
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