Cork is not immune to climate change with significant drops in animal, bird and fish populations

An international wildlife report painted a stark picture of the damage done by humans to the environment, including significant drops in animal, bird and fish populations. Evening Echo reporter Darragh Bermingham spoke to UCC Professor of Zoology John Quinn about the impact in Cork.
Cork is not immune to climate change with significant drops in animal, bird and fish populations

UCC professor of zoology John Quinn says “the Cork area used to be entirely woodland, but all that is left are small woodland fragments of limited value to biodiversity.”

LAST week, the World Wide Fund For Nature (WWF) reported that global populations of fish, birds, mammals, amphibians and reptiles declined, on average, by 60% between 1970 and 2014. Animal population decreases and habitat loss can also be seen across Cork, according to a UCC expert.

The damage, which could soon become irreparable, is daily occurring across Cork and Ireland, says John Quinn, professor in zoology, the School of Biological, Earth & Environmental Science, UCC.

The top threats to species identified in the WWF report are directly linked to human over-exploitation of wildlife.

The Living Planet report warned that there is a rapidly closing window for action to address the impact of human activity on the world’s wildlife, forests, oceans, rivers and climate.

Professor Quinn said this impact is evident here in Cork. “Impacts can be seen in all habitats. For a start, the Cork area used to be entirely woodland, but all that is left are small woodland fragments of limited value to biodiversity,” he added.

“Where farming was once wildlife-friendly, with hedgerows and meadows supporting great diversity in flowers, insects, mammals and birds, this has been replaced with a monoculture of grass that is fertilised heavily, cut far too often for silage, and grazed very intensively.

“Many of our farmland birds are all but gone, the corncrake being the best-known of these, but the corn bunting is also thought to have become extinct in recent years, and many species have declined dramatically, because there is no food for them,” said Professor Quinn.

“Butterflies, bees, and insect diversity, in general, has suffered enormously. As an island nation, Ireland is particularly important for seabird populations, and yet their habitats are almost entirely unmanaged and suffering from human disturbance and invasive species, like rats and mice.

“Even the Skelligs, which have become internationally famous because of Star Wars, and has enormously important populations of seabirds, is facing a problem with mice, who eat seabird eggs and wipe out seabird populations wherever they become established.”

Humanity, and the way we feed, fuel, and finance our societies and economies, is pushing nature to the brink, according to WWF’s Living Planet Report 2018.

On an international scale, the omens are not good for the future of biodiversity, said Professor Quinn.

“For many years, WWF, and a range of organisations, have been highlighting the fact that humans have created a new ‘age of mass extinction’,” he said.

“Increasing amounts of data are becoming available to demonstrate that this is the reality, not hyperbole, and it is fitting that WWF should publish this new, updated report.

“The implications for the wildlife itself is plain to see, but the fact is that the services that many natural habitats provide — food, pollination, flood protection, tourism, quality of life, connection with nature and human health — are all being eroded,” he added.

“As human populations expand, right-wing politics is becoming more popular, a sign of discontent in the human population, as we manage our natural resources inefficiently.

“The recent election of a new president in Brazil, for example, is massively worrying news for the Amazonian rainforests, while Trump, in the US, has no respect for the environment and is only taking a short-term view, putting short-term profits and his own popularity first, at the cost of sustainability and the natural environment.”

Human activity has also severely impacted the habitats and natural resources that wildlife and humanity depend on, such as oceans, forests, coral reefs, wetlands and mangroves.

20% of the Amazon has disappeared in just 50 years, while the Earth is estimated to have lost about half of its shallow water corals in the past 30 years.

According to the WWF, nature provides services for humanity worth around US$125tn annually.

“Nature has been silently sustaining and powering our societies and economies for centuries, and continues to do so today,” said Marco Lambertini, director general of WWF International.

“In return, the world has continued to take nature and its services for granted, failing to act against the accelerating loss of nature.

“It is time we realised that a healthy, sustainable future for all is only possible on a planet where nature thrives and forests, oceans, and rivers are teeming with biodiversity and life,” he added.

Government must address these issues before it is too late, said Professor Quinn.

“Many organisations and schemes are doing their best. For example, the Tidy Towns, Coillte, Birdwatch Ireland, and government bodies, such as the National Parks and Wildlife Service, the Marine Institute, and Teagasc,” he said.

“But the government, at all levels, needs to take a leading role and provide more resources.

“Many farmers want to be given greater incentives to farm in an environmentally friendly manner: for example, leaving field margins free for wildlife, managing hedgerows effectively, and being awarded for having positive carbon budgets, but they are under a lot of pressure to make ends meet and need help,” he added.

The Green, Low-Carbon Agri-Environment Scheme (GLAS) provides funding to farmers, in return for environmental management of their land. However, Professor Quinn described it as “ineffective”, as it “primarily pays lip service to the environment.”

“Bird boxes are all the rage, but the species that use them are not under threat and it is questionable that bat boxes are useful, either,” he added.

He also called for greater control of pesticides and herbicides, and the lack of insects being killed by windscreens shows this is necessary.

“The government needs to invest more in wildlife-protection measures: for example, in the creation of nature reserves and national parks, and managing important wildlife sites effectively,” said Professor Quinn.

“As a nation, we also need to be educated more in our natural heritage, and schools and universities need to play an increasing role.

“We would never neglect our historical heritage, so why do we neglect our natural heritage so much?

“If we do not address these issues, we are damaging not just our natural heritage, but also the services that this heritage provides, and the ability of our environment to adapt to change in the future.”

The WWF is also demanding action from global leaders, to decrease the impact of human consumption on the environment.

Given the interconnectivity between the health of nature, the well-being of people and the future of our planet, WWF urges the global community to unite and reverse the trend of biodiversity loss.

“Science is showing us the harsh reality our forests, oceans, and rivers are enduring at our hands,” said Marco Lambertini, director general, WWF International.

“Inch by inch and species by species, shrinking wildlife numbers and wild places are an indicator of the tremendous impact and pressure we are exerting on the planet, undermining the very living fabric that sustains us all: nature and biodiversity.”

The biggest drivers of biodiversity loss are over-exploitation and agriculture, both linked to increasing human consumption, which is undermining nature’s ability to sustain us.

Through indicators such as the Living Planet Index (LPI), provided by the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), the Species Habitat Index (SHI), the IUCN Red List Index (RLI), and the Biodiversity Intactness Index (BII), as well as Planetary Boundaries and the Ecological Footprint, the WWF report paints a singular, disturbing picture.

Human activity is pushing to the edge the natural systems that support life on Earth.

“We can impact what happens on a local level, but the choices we make also impact what happens globally,” said Professor Quinn.

“Much of our cheap food comes at the cost of habitat for wildlife in the tropics.”

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