Where are our motorways headed?

“The vast and growing consumption of food and resources by the global population is destroying the web of life, billions of years in the making, upon which human society ultimately depends for clean air, water and ….everything else.”[1]  

The familiarity of our countryside, seashore and woods belie their profound importance to our health and well-being. Biodiversity is the infrastructure that supports life on Earth. We rely on healthy ecosystems for the food we eat, the water we drink and the air we breathe. All our food derives from our biodiversity, with one in three mouthfuls of food resulting from the pollination activity of bees. Soil fertility depends on micro – organisms breaking down nourishing organic matter. Wetlands and forest canopies reduce the levels of pollutants in our water and air and our bogs trap carbon. Sand dunes and estuaries act as buffer to floods and severe weather events. And our psychological and spiritual well being is enhanced by the joy and private moments of wonder in contemplation of the natural world. In the words of Professor John Feehan “There is more to amaze, more to wonder us, more to bring us to our knees, in the lives of wild things, in ponds, bogs and woodlands than our short lifetime can ever encompass”[2] . From algae to eagles, we share our living space in Ireland with over 31,000 species, over 2,000 vascular plants, 500 species of marine and 29 freshwater fish, 25 terrestrial mammals, 457 bird species and over 11,000 species of insects – all part of interconnecting ecosystems and of our precious biodiversity which binds us all together.

Of concern, current rates of extinction globally are 100 to 1,000 times higher than the background rate, the standard rate of extinction in earth’s history before human pressure became a prominent factor[3]. There has been an overall decline of 60% in species population sizes between 1970 and 2014. In keeping with this trend, Ireland’s biodiversity has also declined rapidly in recent years, with many unique species now in need of protection. There are many disturbing facts; eighteen percent of the native Irish butterfly fauna is under threat of extinction and one species, the Mountain Ringlet, is extinct[5]. The status of half of the bird species is of concern because of small or declining numbers ; in particular, several of the 25 Irish bird species on the Red list, are believed to be on the brink of extinction. The corncrake used to be heard in every county in Ireland; now, the population of calling birds is down to less than 140. The fall of curlew numbers is now described as being in ‘freefall’ and the bird now risks extinction in Ireland. Wild salmon numbers have reduced and for every 100 salmon that leave our rivers for the sea, less than five return – a decline of nearly 70 per cent in just 25 years. The decline in insect numbers has led to both swallows and starlings being on the Amber list of conservation concern. The cornbunting with its fluttering flight in mixed farmlands of Ireland is now extinct.

Bees are Ireland’s most important pollinators, yet of the 101 different species of bee that occur in Ireland, approximately 30 are threatened with extinction and three have become extinct over the last 80 years. At present, 11 species of birds, over 150 species of flowering plants, 1 amphibian, 6 fish, and 1 mammal are classified in Ireland as either endangered, vulnerable or rare. The corncockle flower is now extinct.

The single greatest reason in Ireland for the loss of our animals and plants is pressure on habitats, reducing the opportunity for organisms to access food and to breed. This is similar to the global picture as depicted in the World Wildlife Fund’s “Living Planet Report” for 2018 which states that “Overexploitation and agricultural activity, driven by our runaway consumption, are the dominant causes of current species loss”. It is apparent that consumer demands in the western world are dangerous for biodiversity. Ireland has the lowest percentage of land area given to protected habitats in the EU. The first assessment of the conservation status of all 59 Irish habitats and 100 protected species was completely unacceptable; over 90% of our habitats were classified as being either inadequate (46%) or bad (47%). The raised bogs, hay meadows, unspoiled sand dunes, and wetlands have slipped silently away from us…

Our way of life must enhance our life giving and life affirming biodiversity, not undermine it. Although statutory authorities have a responsibility to protect our biodiversity, or sustainable development as it is sometimes called, “It is individual choices, made billions of times a day, that count the most”[6]. Advertizing plays a role in consumer spending.  It is estimated that 1.07 billion euros was spent on advertising in Ireland in 2018, up by almost 7% since 2017, with more than a third of companies in Ireland in 2018 saying that they planned to increase their spend on marketing in the year ahead. Advertizing is relentless; the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland rule that television stations can advertise for up to 18% of their total broadcasting time, and that up to 20% of every hour can be devoted to advertising. At the same time, almost a third of Irish people do not use a significant proportion of their weekly food shop. In addition, Irish household generate a staggering 7,500 tons of rubbish per day.  The difference between consumer wants and consumer needs can spell the death of species, the depletion of our natural resources and ill-health for all.
In this light, the most important contribution we can make to the well being of our biodiversity is to firstly, reduce our consumption of the earth’s resources.

We need to recognize when we have enough. The concept of ‘enough’ has been comprehensively discussed by Anne Ryan; ‘‘Enough’ puts us back in touch with the part of us that understands beauty and scale and that empathizes with the rest of creation’[7].

So how can we play our part in helping our biodiversity? Firstly, we can get to know our biodiversity; we are richer when we know our neighbours – human, animal and plant…..when we know the names of the nearest trees to where we live, the most common birds locally, and where the nicest blackberries grow. Secondly, we must seriously consider restricting advertising. Thirdly, and following on from the previous suggestion, we urgently need to reduce our consumption of the earth’s resources and to reuse, recycle and buy locally. These actions will reduce our demands on the habitats of our fellow creatures. Growing our own food where possible and purchasing goods that are produced locally will also minimize our impact on the earth’s resources. Biodiversity is important; and the mainstream media could report on the first sighting of a swallow or the first hawthorn blossom. We can also choose to leave part of our garden free for wildlife, and can join organizations such as the Irish Wildlife Trust.

The meaning of the words ‘biodiversity’ and ‘sustainability’, while different, are not far apart. When we were building a motorway, concerns about the impact that this might have on a small snail were ridiculed. Perhaps now is the time to ask where exactly our motorways and other signs of progress are headed.


1. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/oct/30/humanity-wiped-out-animals-since-1970-major-report-finds

2. Feehan J. The Singing Hear of the World. Dublin: Columba Press; 2010

3. WWF. 2018. Living Planet Report – 2018: Aiming Higher. Grooten, M. and Almond, R.E.A.(Eds). WWF, Gland, Switzerland.

4. Regan E.C, Nelson B, Aldwell B, Bertrand C, Bond K., Harding J. et al. Ireland Red List No. 4 – Butterflies. Dublin: National Parks and Wildlife Service, Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government; 2010

5. Robinson R.A. State of bird populations in Britain and Ireland In: Silent Summer. Editor. Maclean N Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; 2010 p.281-318

6. Progress towards the European 2020 biodiversity target. Copenhagen: European Environment Agency; 2009

7.  Ryan A. Enough Is Plenty: Public and Private Policies for the 21st Century. Dublin: O Books; 2009

Featured image: corncrake. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Corn_crake

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