Green Ireland–Sustainable Land Use

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Along the River Lee. Cork, Ireland. Photograph, Neva Knott.

By Neva Knott

I’m in Cork, Ireland for a summer writer’s workshop. Of course, I’ve been experiencing this lovely place with a naturalist’s eye. Here’s what I’ve learned…

The River Lee is beautiful to walk along on a summer’s evening here in Cork, Ireland. As I meander along the banks of the Lee, I find two things interesting about this urban waterway, ecologically speaking.

First, much of the riparian zone is intact as the river flows into Cork’s city center. Between the banks and the footpaths stand chestnut, oak, maple, lilac and other deciduous tree species and shrubbery. This vegetation is important to the river’s health because it regulates water temperature so that fish species can thrive and stabilizes the bank, helping with erosion, keeping the river free of sediment, and absorbs storm water overflow should the river rise rapidly.

The second important detail is that the water is clean. I can see to the bottom in many places. The urban rivers I’ve lived along in Oregon–the Willamette and the Columbia–aren’t clean, after years of industrial use. They are murky.

The River Lee is just one example of Ireland’s water quality. According to the blog Move to Ireland, 85 per cent of the country’s lakes and 70 per cent of its rivers are in good quality. What good quality means in environmental terms is that much of the ecology of the waterway is intact–habitat is functioning, vegetation isn’t too degraded, and the water is clean of sediment, pollution such as farm chemical run-off, industrial waste and other pollutants such as trash and fecal matter from farming or human sewage.

Ireland’s Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine runs a Rural Environmental Protection Scheme, working with farmers to keep waterways clean. This is an important consideration because 65 per cent of Ireland’s land is used for farming.

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Photograph courtesy of wiki commons.

Food Harvest 2020 is another scheme developed by the Department of Agriculture. The idea is to leverage Ireland’s primary industry–farming–as a globally recognized food source while branding Green Ireland as sustainably farmed products. Much of the livestock here is grass-fed already. Much of the farming here is low-input, meaning fewer chemical fertilizers and pesticides are used. Along with maximizing this sustainable practice already in use, the Department urges “alignment of sustainability across the supply chain” and conservation of biodiversity as the agricultural sector works to meet the economic and environmental goals of Food Harvest 2020.

Even with these robust agricultural programs in place, and the tradition of farming continuing into Ireland’s future, some farmers are looking to diversify their income streams. Afforestation–planting and growing trees on land previously cleared for other uses–is one way for farmers to increase revenues. Forest establishment is 100 per cent “grant aided” by the Forest Service in Ireland, according to Forest Enterprises, Ltd. Currently, 11 per cent of Ireland is used for forestry. Government agencies propose afforestation at a rate of 15,000 ha annually. Not only would this increase in trees allow farmers to make more money, but would significantly increase rural employment. Harvested trees would be used for wood products and for wood energy.

One of Ireland’s environmental issues is the conservation of its unique wetlands, bogs. Conservation of bogs has, to date run at cross-purposes with afforestation efforts. Because wetlands everywhere–until very recently–were thought of as wastelands, swamps to be dammed or filled for other purposes, trees have filled in some of Ireland’s crucial blanket bogs.

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Photograph courtesy of wiki commons.

Scientists, in the last 20 to 30 years, have begun to understand that wetlands provide important ecosystems services. Ireland’s bogs, according to the Ireland Peatland Conservation Council, store millions of tonnes of C02. They also control river catchment and hydrology and provide habitat for key species. Conservation efforts to keep bogs intact are an integral part of Ireland’s overall environmental protection scheme.

Ireland is a beautifully green place, with encouraging environmental protections in place.

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