Dáil Statements on the Nature Restoration Law

Dáil Statements on the Nature Restoration Law

There are times when I disagree with Deputy Ó Cuív and more times when I agree with him, but I always listen to him because it is always worth listening to what he has to say. He has always thought it over very deeply. Ar dtús báire, is mian liom a lua, sa tseachtain ina bhfuil muid, an leabhar An Ghaeilge agus an Éiceolaíocht: Irish and Ecology le Michael Cronin. Tá sé dátheangach. It is in two languages. Má tá suim ag duine sa bhithéagsúlacht nó san éiceolaíocht agus sa Ghaeilge, is fiú é a léamh. It is a really worthwhile read. It is not a heavy read but it is interesting and thought provoking.

We have frogs in the garden. A neighbour up the road has a small pond. I make sure to keep a couple of corners that are friendly enough to the frogs. To see a seven-year-old trying to catch a frog in your back garden – I am sure the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, has done likewise – is quite something. It brings home that sense of joy – about which the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, spoke – that the connection with nature brings. Last summer we got one of those rare days in the Guillamene, close to where I live in Tramore, when there was not a heavy swell. The ocean was still and the visibility in the water from standing on the pier, at Newtown Cove rather than the Guillamene, meant you could see about 30 ft down into the water. The sun was shining just right. The sprats came in and you could see them glistening down through the whole column of water. My three boys spent a full hour dive-bombing into 30 ft of wonder. These things are increasingly rare.

I cannot talk about nature without turning to one of my favourite poets. I do not know whether it is allowed to quote an English poet in here. It is usually Seamus Heaney who is quoted, but in this case I will quote Ted Hughes. One of his best-known poems is “Hawk Roosting”. It is written from the point of view of the hawk. It closes with the following lines:

The sun is behind me.Nothing has changed since I began.My eye has permitted no change.I am going to keep things like this.

However, it is not within the compass of the hawk roosting to keep things the way they are or the way they were. We feel this loss all around us. We feel much the poorer for this loss. Anybody who has done as many circuits of the sun as I have, or the Minister of State has, can see it within our own lifetime. We can see how those voices all across our natural world are being stilled and are falling into silence. It is critical that we pass this nature restoration law.

I am going to talk about some aspects that have been largely ignored in this debate. Article 9 deals with agricultural ecosystems and a part of that article deals with rewetting, which has dominated the debate. We have had very little discussion of the other articles that are equally important and probably equally as challenging. However, I want to return to something a previous speaker said when she spoke about the Minister of State’s legacy. She characterised it in a particular way, as a legacy of failure. I want to repudiate that utterly. If we are speaking about the legacy that Deputy Noonan has delivered as a Minister of State, we can look to the reform and funding of the National Parks and Wildlife Service, NPWS. We can look to the first national park in some 25 years. We can talk about the designation of close to 10% of our marine waters as marine protected areas. He can correct me on that figure if I am wrong. Critically, we will be able to point to this legislation as an important part of his legacy. There is no doubt in my mind when I look at the previous votes – this last vote was not quite as close – that the battle was won in many senses. I accept some of Deputy Murphy’s criticisms around the concessions that were made to get this law across the line. However, one of the earlier votes passed by dint of choices made by the Irish MEPs. That was the margin. Had the Irish MEPs gone in a different direction, this law would have failed and we would not be speaking about the nature restoration law. Each of those MEPs had Grace O’Sullivan and Ciarán Cuffe, our Green Party MEPs, in one ear and the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, in the other ear. That was critical. Without that intervention, we would not be here discussing this legislation. That is the Minister of State’s positive legacy. I can think of no other Minister for nature who made the positive contribution that he has made. It is something to be entirely proud of. It is very easy to whinge from the ditches. I recall the words of Ron Finley, the guerrilla gardener of south Los Angeles. He says if you want to meet him, grab a shovel. I would say the same thing about nature restoration. It is easy to sit and criticise. If you want to be part of the solution, roll up your sleeves and pitch in.

I will return to some of the other articles. Deputy Ó Cuív’s intervention had great insight. He is correct when he says we cannot talk about returning to some better, imagined past. The river does not flow in that direction. We can try to work towards a brighter imagined future that all of us work towards. Deputy Ó Cuív is right in terms of the balance we need to strike between rewilding and restoring. In fact, the restoration of nature in this country is going to require significant human intervention, and not just in terms of the different types of habitat we try to create. We know there are certain man-made and man-managed habitats that actually have great nature value. He also correctly identifies invasive species like rhododendron that cannot be allowed to dominate. There will have to be human intervention in preventing overgrazing and preventing the spread of invasive species. He is absolutely right when he says that the people best placed to engage in that restoration process are the people who know the land best, the people who have worked that land for many years.

I want to mention other articles that get little attention in this debate, such as Article 4 on the restoration of terrestrial, coastal and freshwater ecosystems. We have seen such loss in terms of our pristine waters over recent decades. We know the reasons for this. We can obfuscate and point to human settlements if we wish. However, we know it is because we have pushed our agricultural systems to the limits. The pressure that is placing on our freshwater systems is becoming untenable.

Article 5 deals with the restoration of marine ecosystems, which is going to be critically important in Ireland. Our land mass comprises just one tenth of our territory. Most of what we call Ireland is actually under the waves. We will have a huge part to play in terms of regulating overfishing. What type of fishing will we allow and in what areas?

Which parts of our marine territory will we choose to protect? Energy from renewable sources is outlined in Article 6. There will be tension between food production, energy production and things like nature restoration. We will need to be honest about that and figure out how to balance it.

Article 8 deals with urban ecosystems. This will be a significant challenge. If I can walk to and from where I stay here in Dublin, I will see some street trees, but what other part of nature will I encounter in the centre of Dublin? Where does a person who lives in an urban environment go to find a frog in a back garden? They are few and far between. That will be as challenging as any other part of this law.

The current system is not working for people, particularly those who are on marginal lands. I spent time with the guys from the Comeragh uplands EIP. They spent their time in that project getting to know their landscape better and getting to know the names of the plants and animals that live in the landscape. It really enriched their understanding of the place in which they had lived all their lives and for generations. The model of sheep farming available to those guys who are farming on commonage does not pay the bills, however. It is incredibly hard work. It does not make economic sense for them or ecological sense for anybody. The damage the model is doing is putting the fragile landscape at risk.

One of the real challenges we will face is explaining the implications of this law and making sure we get buy-in. Brian O’Donnell, director of Campaign for Nature, a non-governmental organisation, spoke in the wake of COP15 in Montreal – the biodiversity COP attended by the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan. Mr. O’Donnell stated that if we are to have any hope for the success of 30×30 – as the Minister of State is aware, that is the 30% restoration target agreed in Montreal – it must be supported by, embraced by and led by local people. The community part in this is critical, as is the land use review. We need to be able to explain to people and help them imagine what this new landscape looks like – a landscape in which we make room for rivers, nature and renewable energy production, which will demand a certain amount of land use, as well as food production, carbon sequestration, water systems and human amenity. We have to help people see that landscape in order that they can understand it. I am firmly of the view that if we can imagine that landscape, we will see that it is a brighter imagined future towards which we all wish to work.

I cannot allow my contribution to the debate pass without referring to the screening I hosted of “Birdsong” in the audiovisual room this week. Seán Ronayne, who many people will know from his appearance on “The Tommy Tiernan Show”, has set as his mission the task of recording every bird species in Ireland. He is nearly there; he only has two left. The film is beautiful. Anybody who has a chance to see it should do so. It is beautifully shot. Huge credit is due to Ross Bartley, the cinematographer, and Kathleen Harris, the director. Ultimately, however, it becomes an elegy for a world we are losing. One of the most moving things in the film was the recording of the last breeding pair of ring ouzel in Ireland. It is the sound of extinction. It is the sound of s world that is passing. We are possibly the last generation to have the opportunity to arrest this decline. People should go to see this film, get out into the back garden with the frogs, go swimming with the sprats, reconnect and let us make the difference we absolutely need in order to preserve the natural world for future generations.