Gabhaim míle buíochas leis an gCathaoirleach agus le na baill. I thank the committee for inviting us here today to talk about how Ireland's birds are faring. The primary objective of BirdWatch Ireland is the conservation of wild birds and their habitats and biodiversity. Our organisation is the largest independent nature conservation charity in Ireland with 15,000 members, a network of 25 branches nationwide, and more than 1,500 volunteer surveyors who contribute thousands of hours of survey time to collecting information on our wild birds. We are a science-based organisation and our staff include internationally recognised experts. We are the Irish representative of BirdLife International, the world’s largest conservation partnership, and we collaborate with a wide range of stakeholders to achieve our goals. Today we will outline the conservation status of Ireland's wild birds, the pressures and threats they are facing, what we are doing to help, and what else needs to be done.
The Dáil declared a biodiversity and climate emergency on 9 May 2019 and called for biodiversity loss to be addressed by a citizens’ assembly. This indicates that, as a nation, we recognise that urgent action is needed to protect and safeguard our environment into the future. This year is BirdWatch Ireland’s 50th anniversary. In the past 50 years Ireland has seen dramatic changes to its landscape and to its biodiversity. Birds are key indicators of the health of our environment and they face many challenges.
Significant changes are evident in bird populations, most sadly for the worse. There are some good news stories, but the trends for some key species groups are very worrying.
With our mild climate and vast, abundant wetlands, Ireland attracts thousands of migrant waterbirds every winter. For the past 25 years, we have monitored their populations through the Irish Wetland Bird Survey, I-WeBS, funded by the National Parks and Wildlife Service and co-ordinated by BirdWatch Ireland, with help from our volunteer network. Each year, approximately 11,000 volunteer hours are contributed to the survey by irreplaceable, skilled individuals who care about, and want to protect their local birds and wetlands. Our most recent I-WeBS survey analyses show that Ireland has lost in the region of 500,000 waterbirds, almost 40%, in less than 20 years. In detail, the analysis shows that over half of the 15 wader species that regularly winter here have declined. For example, the number of wintering lapwings has decreased by 67% in less than 20 years. Mallard – a duck so familiar to everyone that it is often overlooked – has declined by over 40% in the past 20 years. Habitat loss, climate change and cumulative impacts represent the main pressures on and threats to our wintering waterbirds, and urgent action is needed to protect areas important for them and to maintain this diversity of species.
Farmland in Ireland has changed dramatically in the past 50 years. The Countryside Bird Survey, a BirdWatch Ireland-led citizen science-based survey, funded by the National Parks and Wildlife Service, has been running since the late 1990s and monitors the most common breeding birds in the Irish landscape. Results indicate that although many common species, such as goldfinch and blackcap, are stable or increasing, about a quarter of familiar farmland birds, such as stock dove, swift, greenfinch, stonechat and kestrel are exhibiting serious declines.
More detailed knowledge of longer-term trends in all bird populations comes from another volunteer-based survey, the Bird Atlas, the most recent of which was completed in 2011. Bird atlases allow us to monitor change over the longer term and are particularly important in highlighting declines indicative of dramatic changes in the Irish landscape. The atlas shows that our once biodiversity-rich farmland landscape has become less hospitable for wildlife as agricultural methods and technologies have intensified. This is clearly reflected in the almost complete extermination of farmland birds such as the corncrake. Once widespread, corncrakes are now confined to the most marginal areas of the west and north west as late-cut hay meadows have been used for multiple-cut silage. Similarly, severe declines have been recorded in most of our breeding waders, including the curlew, the lapwing and the snipe. These species, once widespread and familiar to many farmers because they nest in damp pastures, traditional hay meadows and bogs, are disappearing. Curlew is one of the most severely impacted and is now on the verge of extinction, with only about 150 pairs remaining of the 5,000 pairs that nested here in the 1960s and 1970s. Once, not long ago, the famed cry of the curlew was literally the sound of wild Ireland. However, most of the curlew's former strongholds have fallen silent.
The main reason for the declines of many farmland birds is habitat loss - the widespread drainage of wetlands and damp pastures and the more intensive management of agricultural grasslands through reseeding and increased fertiliser use. Other factors include industrial-scale extraction of peat bogs and afforestation of habitats. Remaining populations of many farmland species, particularly ground-nesting birds, are now much more isolated, and are affected by predation. The loss of mixed and arable farming has also affected species such as the yellowhammer and the skylark. This resulted in the extinction of the corn bunting in Ireland in 1991.
While agri-environment schemes such as GLAS, through which farmers are incentivised to work the land in an environmentally friendly way, have gone some way towards maintaining or, in certain cases, improving bird habitats on farmland, such schemes do not go far enough. Activities such as inappropriate hedge-cutting and the burning of scrub and upland habitats are detrimental to our native wildlife and affect our carbon stores. The changes to the Wildlife Act contained in the Heritage Act, passed last year, have sadly weakened the protections afforded to breeding birds of uplands and hedgerows and must be repealed. Water quality in lakes and rivers affected by nutrient run-off and other inputs can reduce the number of invertebrates, which in turn has a knock-on effect on birds living in these aquatic habitats, such as the dipper, the kingfisher and the grey wagtail.
Raptors are apex predators at the top of the food chain and hence can be affected by a range of changes and pressures in the environment. There have been several positive conservation success stories, such as the return, through reintroduction, of species such as the eagle and the red kite. Buzzard and peregrine falcon populations are recovering in the Irish landscape after almost disappearing. Unfortunately, however, many of the issues that have caused the declines and extinctions of birds of prey are still present in the countryside. The illegal killing of birds of prey, through shooting and indiscriminate poisoning, remains prevalent and affects a wide range of species. To tackle these wildlife crimes, there is a need for greater emphasis on investigation and enforcement of the legislation, including better resourcing of the National Parks and Wildlife Service and greater collaboration with An Garda Síochána. Raptors can also be exposed to other poisons that are legally used, such as rodenticides, which are targeted at controlling rats and mice.
The barn owl is a red-listed species of conservation concern and its population has declined dramatically, largely due to land-use changes and the intensification of agriculture, which has caused the reduction in the extent and quality of habitats available to it. Hen harrier populations have also declined for similar reasons. Much of its upland nesting habitat has been lost to the planting of non-native conifer plantations
There are many species of birds that coexist with humans, living among us in our cities, towns and villages. We often refer to these as “urban birds”. The swift population has undergone a 50% decline in the past 20 years. Factors include the loss of nest sites in the fabric of our older buildings, where access to the roof space and gaps in masonry have housed their nests for generations. The demolition, renovation and retrofitting of old buildings displace nesting swifts by removing the vital access they once had. Once a swift loses its nest site, it can mean many lost breeding seasons before the monogamous pair finds new suitable nest sites and can breed again. Other impacts include climate change and, in particular, the decline in insects, which the swift solely relies on for food.
A familiar visitor to Dublin from Arctic Canada is the brent goose. Ireland hosts a high percentage of the global population of this species. They are threatened by the squeeze for space, which is far greater in our capital than anywhere else in the country due to the rate of development. Brent geese need permanent short grassland swards, such as playing pitches, to graze in the lean months of the winter. Such site sites which are disappearing in our capital.
Ireland supports internationally or even globally important populations of a number of seabirds. Puffins and kittiwake are globally threatened and have declining populations in Ireland, whilst the black-headed gull and herring gull are on the Irish red list due to a dramatic decline in breeding numbers in recent decades. Climate change is probably the most serious threat to seabirds. As the oceans warm, their food sources change. Other serious threats include sea level rise, oil pollution and the increasing abundance of ingested plastics in the seabird diet, in addition to fatal entanglement in discarded fishing gear and non-sustainable fisheries practices.
BirdWatch Ireland staff have been involved in active conservation projects for terns, including the roseate terns on Rockabill, which is located off the coast near Skerries. This has been a profoundly successful project and shows what can be achieved with the input of resources. In the last 30 years, the number of roseate terns has increased from 152 breeding pairs of to 1,597.
What is being done to address declines of bird populations? BirdWatch Ireland uses many tools to further conservation efforts, including large-scale EU-funded conservation projects. Nationally funded work includes long-term management, protection, and research on and monitoring of several important species groups. Our advocacy and awareness-raising work seeks to influence decision makers to improve policies that affect bird populations and engage with the public on the issues facing birds and their habitats. There are other actions happening all around the country, supported by the Government and concerned members of communities, which is heartening. It is clear that Irish people care deeply about their natural heritage, as witnessed by the green wave that has taken hold in recent times. However, we will need to take further significant action if we are to protect bird life and nature on our island.
Ireland is in the midst of a biodiversity crisis. Saving biodiversity in Ireland is the responsibility of all of Departments and sectors, and all stakeholders have a part to play in this regard. The Government must ensure that sectoral policies cohere with the policies and legal obligations to protect and conserve biodiversity. Tackling the chronic historic cuts to funding to protect biodiversity is essential.
Now is the time to bolster this funding to ensure that we can continue to avail of the ecosystem services that nature provides. Full implementation of the national biodiversity action plan is a must before it expires in 2021. In addition, we must act to stem the worst impacts of climate breakdown, including using nature-based solutions for climate action.
The farmed landscape supports some of our most threatened and declining species. One of our most important messages to the committee is that Government policy must urgently recognise and reward sustainable and low-intensity farming systems that are supporting birds and other biodiversity. The policy direction of Food Wise 2025 is contrary to this in practice and this does not bode well for biodiversity, for the climate or for farmers on marginal land. Ireland’s climate ambition relies heavily on forestry but forestry policy to date represents a significant pressure and threat to biodiversity, with insufficient safeguards for high nature value farmland, ground nesting birds and other wildlife.
In respect of our vast marine area, Ireland needs to fully implement the Common Fisheries Policy and the marine strategy framework directive. We cannot protect what we do not measure. Funding is needed for additional bird survey coverage to fill gaps in our knowledge of bird species' distributions and abundances. This will require professional co-ordination and survey, with support from citizen scientists.
Birds are the indicators of the health of the environment. Conservation of wild birds and their habitats will bring wider benefits to biodiversity, communities and our economy but there is a huge challenge ahead and that can only be met by political will, policies that work with nature instead of against it and a significant increase in funding to save our words and biodiversity.