In Ireland we have a knack of heaping praise onto anything that suits us. Even pedestrian events can raise a raucous cheer if the intention is to place them upon a pedestal. The sentiment of a previous Irish soccer team captain that we are a nation that celebrates mediocrity is completely true but we also lavish praise onto both good and exceptional events and circumstances with glee and generosity. As good as we are at heaping praise on things, undeservedly on many occasions; we are also adept at ignoring problems and hoping they will disappear. If this disappearance is not forthcoming then we bury our heads a little deeper in the sand in the hopes that this trick will work. As a nation we are superb at dodging issues that are uncomfortable and those that we do not wish to address. The lack of desire to talk publicly about issues such as suicide and cancer make excellent examples.
We have fantastic angling resources in this country and we should all feel both proud and blessed to have what we have on our own doorstep. There are many positives to take from our resources but there are also negatives. If you were to ask me what the most important factor for preserving Irish angling is then both the angler and scientist in me will answer that question with ‘water quality’. No matter what work gets done, be it efforts in preventing illegal fishing, instream works to restore river habitats, signage and facilities for visiting anglers or restockings, all of these efforts are a waste of time and resources if we cannot get a handle on the water quality issue. I am of the opinion that with regard to spawning salmonids, salmon and trout, any work that is done in rivers will be of absolutely no use if water quality continues to deteriorate. And this is where we meet the elephant in the room.
In Ireland we have a long tradition of being an agricultural country with land usage in every county in the country being dedicated towards agriculture. 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 look at some of the more common pollution events that arise from agricultural practices and how they affect water quality. The amount of land set aside for agriculture in Ireland is approximately 4.2 million hectares which is 64% of the country. The vast majority of farming in Ireland relates to cattle with approximately 80% of agricultural land devoted to grass for cattle grazing (Teagasc). 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.
On farmland where livestock can reach and enter waterways we should be able to see deterioration in water quality, particularly after large rainfall events. These will come from a number of sources with the most notable being heavy rain that follows a spreading exercise. Common practice is to spread animal waste products on the land to act as a fertiliser. More often than not, when rain occurs after spreading we see a situation where all the faecal waste spread on the fields gets washed into the river, flushing huge amounts of nitrates, phosphates and ammonia into the waterways. Ammonia in very small quantities can cause death to macroinvertebrates, the building blocks of the dietary needs for fish, fowl and mammals that all rely on aquatic food webs for survival. Do damage to the lower reaches of the food web and you will have less food for other aquatic inhabitants. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out what that leads to. Larger amounts of ammonia will cause far more instant damage – fish and fowl kills are the order of the day. There are rules regarding how close to a river this practice can be carried out but they are widely ignored.
Nitrates and phosphates are just as bad in terms of altering the aquatic environment should excess amounts find their way into our waters. Along with other nutrients, nitrates and phosphates are the primary ingredients for plant growth. An excess of these nutrients sees an explosion of plant growth which has many different impacts on rivers. The physical nature of the river will change by excessive plant growth and this can pose problems towards the free passage of spawning fish. Assuming fish can migrate through the dense vegetation they then run the risk of having their spawning grounds over run by plants, the root systems preventing them from cutting redds to deposit eggs in. If egg laying is hampered then the outlook for subsequent generations of fish do not look good. There are many waters that are suffering from explosions in plant growth, impeding both the natural flow of the river and the fish that live within them.
Access to rivers for livestock is also creating more problems. As cattle walk to the river to drink the hooves create erosion of river banks and the removal of plants along riparian zones which in turn leads to loose soil and banks. Rainfall ensures that a lot of this loose soil will be washed back into the river increasing turbidity and any soil that gets washed into the river will be deposited somewhere further downstream, creating problems for individuals and communities along the length of the river. Such is the extent of upland erosion due to livestock that any misguided dredging efforts undertaken in any of our main rivers will result in the removed sediment being replaced by Nature working on cattle trampled river banks within a few short years. Erosion of river banks also leads to situations where upland rivers widen and become too shallow to support fish life and accommodate larger spawning fish.
Ireland has also seen many of its river courses altered and canalised by the drainage schemes that have operated in this country for generations. Anecdotal evidence in many parts of the country suggest of rivers and streams that teemed with fish until they were deepened and dredged in the hopes of making them drain the fields faster. Indeed the fields did drain faster, so much faster in fact that coupled with the mass clearance of forestry and bogland in Ireland to make way for livestock grazing this country has experienced flooding that is growing increasingly bad as each year rolls by. The cleared land that has been sliced apart with drainage ditches drains very fast, so fast that it causes misery to thousands downstream as towns and villages suffer flooding. Dredging to appease the agricultural sector will not prevent this problem happening again. When the rivers eventually silt up again we will be back to square one and all the areas that get dredged will accomplish will be to push the problem further downstream. Crop farming produces similar effects with the spreading of fertilisers that invariably get washed into the waterways.
The problem is widespread and signs of danger can be seen readily if one is prepared to look closely. It is well known that intensive agricultural practices are environmentally damaging so why is there such a reluctance to raise the issue? Why will none of the canvassing politicians engage in criticism of the practices? They turned tail and ran when the issue of agriculturally caused water quality issues were raised. Why did a State employee for a body charged with monitoring and protecting wildlife in Ireland tell me that ‘intensive agriculture is compatible with the Irish environment’ and he kept a straight face while he did it! The phrase ‘It is very difficult to make a man understand something if his salary depends on him not understanding it’, springs to mind.
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 (CSO, 2012). 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. 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.
As recently as in the last month I have heard three politicians, two of them Ministers, declare ‘Economics are far more important than the environment’. With attitudes like that what hope do we have? We had a leader of the country that attended a global climate change where all nations would endeavour to reduce pollution and our lad asked for an exemption. That made me shudder because surely all economics are dependent on there being a healthy environment there in the first place. Without a healthy environment the rest will come tumbling down. A deterioration of water quality is something that will not be widely noticed until it is too late.
Now I am not for one second suggesting that we disband farms and abandon agriculture; that would be ridiculous in the extreme. We all need to eat and Ireland has a huge agricultural export market. What we need is balance. We can all use the land in a way that everybody gains from it, not just one sector that destroys it for all other stakeholders. Granted, farming brings a lot of money into this country but so do water based activities. Angling alone generates over €0.75 billion every year (IFI, 2012), money which benefits a range of industries and small economies and a resource that is dependent on good water quality. The many families and businesses that depend on this visitor revenue would sorely miss it should water quality drop below levels that are conducive to healthy fisheries.
I realise that in a predominantly agricultural country writing a piece like this will not make me many friends, indeed I foresee a busy inbox after this one, but it is written for the right reasons. We all need clean water and we all need to share in it. We really need to look at new and novel approaches to land management and farming practices in Ireland if both agriculture and water quality are to continue to thrive. The way things are, we have been offered a choice between one or the other. If we took an example from some of the Welsh farmers in Pontbren or some of the farmers involved in the Mulkear Life project then things could change and potentially we would be able to choose both agriculture and good water quality. It’s up to us…
This piece was written for ‘Off The Scale’, Ireland’s number one angling magazine. Click on the logo below to visit ‘Off The Scale’s’ website and have a look at the quality angling product that is being put together for all anglers, Irish or otherwise. Salt or fresh, match, pleasure or specimen, there’s a little of something for everybody.