Irish peat bogs rocked by great sheep explosion

Overgrazing encouraged by EU subsidies could destroy unique habitat. Alan Murdoch reports
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The Independent Online
Exactly 150 years after the great famine, a new Irish population explosion is threatening to create havoc in the most remote parts of the country.

The problem has nothing to do with people. Ireland's human birth rate has declined steadily in the past 20 years. The trouble is sheep - the republic now has 1 million more of them than people. With a total flock of 4.7 million, large tracts of the most scenic mountain areas of the west, including unique bogland, are suffering erosion through a combination of overgrazing and heavy rainfall.

Conservationists and farming bodies blame a poorly-managed farm subsidy system that makes ever-larger flocks the only means of survival for farmers with desperately poor land.

Overgrazing is worst in winter. If worn down and left exposed by too many sheep, peat beds are washed away in "bog-bursts" of heavy rain.

South Connemara in Co Galway and parts of Mayo have been particularly badly hit. To preserve these areas, the Irish Peatlands Conservation Council has lodged a complaint with the European Commission, seeking legal moves against Dublin over its failure to protect boglands. A spokesman for the EU directorate on environmental affairs said it was waiting for a response from Dublin before deciding on further legal action.

Overgrazing is also covered by EU provisions on habitats, wild birds, and livestock stocking levels. Moorland birds such as golden plovers and merlins are particularly under threat.

A 1994 EU regulation requires member states to limit or abolish sheep headage payments when necessary for environmental protection.

The Irish sheep population has more then doubled since 1985, when it stood at 2 million, a growth corresponding to the introduction of subsidies.

"The price trend is downward all over Europe, and prices in Ireland have suffered more than in any of our European competitors. The money a farmer gets today for selling a lamb will only pay for the cost of rearing it, so premiums and the headage provide the only profit he will make," an Irish Farmers' Association (IFA) spokesman said.

The sheep explosion is clearly visible with vast numbers in lowland fields and in small groups on even the highest Connemara mountain ledges, threatening rare plant life in both former lake-bed bog and upland boglands.

The botanists Fiona McGowan, of University College Dublin, and Dr Mary O'Connor, of University College Galway, warn that with political pressure now being directed at the EU Agriculture Commissioner to raise headage payments, the problem may worsen.

"Our argument is, why not try to develop the land in a sustainable way? It [the headage system] seems crazy because you're just killing the golden goose. It's very short-sighted," Dr O'Connor said. She wants more Common Agricultural Policy funds transferred into the Rural Environmental Protection Scheme (REPS), promoting alternative land uses in place of intensive farming, a policy supported by the IFA.

The IFA agrees that if flock numbers are to be reduced, the REPS scheme must be made at least as rewarding as the headage system.

It also wants an end to inefficient use of "commonage," or shared grazing areas to eliminate overgrazing due to multiple flocks using the same land.

Archaeologists emphasise the unique role peatlands play in preserving remains of ancient animals. The body of an Irish elk, which became extinct thousands of years ago after the Ice Age, was found only last week in a bog in Co Monaghan.

Other archaeological finds preserved by peat include the remains of 5,000-year-old Irish settlements at Ceide Fields in Mayo and a 50ft, 3,500 year-old oak cargo boat discovered in Co Galway in 1902 and now displayed in the Dublin National Museum.

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