By Cathal O’Meara.
Landscapes that support extensive meat and dairy farming are dramatically damaging our rivers and contributing to flooding in our towns and cities. Globally livestock accounts for 70% of all our agricultural landscapes and contributes more greenhouse gasses (18%) than the entire transport sector (12%). However, our livestock-dominated landscapes are having their most significant impacts not on climate but on our rivers and watercourses.
Current flood-relief schemes in Ireland appear to exemplify a linear pattern of thinking about watercourses. Recently completed schemes in Fermoy and Mallow, on the Munster Blackwater, treat the towns in isolation from the catchment of the rivers that periodically flood them.
This, however, is addressing the symptoms without considering the cause, of flooding. Landscape policies that encourage and subsidise livestock are compounding flooding nationally, remains rarely discussed, the opposition cowed.
Soil compaction, and faecal matter runoff due to overgrazing and overstocking in the Blackwater Valley
Much of our uplands are maintained in a state of arrested ecological development where grazing, often combined with annual burning of the vegetation, is used to retard the development of vegetation that is unwelcome (from a livestock perspective). This is despite the fact that the productivity of these lands is so marginal as to render them unworkable without grant aid. Often vegetation in these uplands remains below half a metre tall for the limited grazing benefit of sheep (and deer).
Policies that promote cattle or dairy cows on better-quality “improved” land prevent us from realising the potential of a sustainable forestry policy. A recent study undertaken by the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology in Wales found that: “Water sinks into the soil under trees at 67 times the rate at which it sinks into the soil under grass”.
A series of studies undertaken by various bodies including the Department of Environment and Cork County Council concerning the water quality of the Blackwater River, as well as similar work undertaken by the Department for Environment in Britain all come to the same conclusion that “animal trampling” (soil compaction) and “intensive cattle grazing” pose a risk to the “riparian areas and to the water channel itself”. The risk is multifaceted and includes intensified sedimentation from increased runoff of rainwater due to soil compaction and also from increased nutrient content within the water itself from the faecal matter of cows, leading to eutrophication of the water. Recent Cryptosporidium outbreaks nationally highlight the dangers of untreated human and animal waste.
There is a further complication with livestock due to the growth of maize to supplement the diet of cows and cattle. Maize, which is increasingly being grown here, is harvested in the autumn – leaving the soil bare during its most critical time, the winter months. Without vegetation there is little capacity for the soil to retain water and the winter rains wash the sediment into the rivers. A 1998 Study by Morgan et al estimates that this loss of soil can be as significant as several tonnes per hectare, per year.
Drainage schemes throughout river catchments in Ireland complete this picture. The remit of the Office of Public Works (OPW) under the 1945 Drainage Act empowered it to carry out drainage of agricultural land. Under the 1995 Act the OPW was charged with the protection of urban areas subject to flooding. However, both of these issues arise from the same logical fallacy. The desire to increase the speed of water flowing from the land and through the rivers has increased the propensity of our towns to flooding.
Recent inspiring projects are being undertaken internationally that aim to slow down the speed of water flowing through our landscapes, seeking instead water-attenuating solutions. ‘Room for the River’ is a Dutch Government programme that seeks space to allow the callows and lowlands to flood. ‘Adaptive Land Use for Flood Alleviation’ in France seeks to create sacrificial wetland landscapes upstream of Paris on the River Seine to prevent downstream flooding.
How can we use these concepts for reinvigorating rural Ireland? Perhaps we need just to look to Mayo where the success of the recently completed Greenway provides inspiration. We could add to this a network of campsites, horse-riding bridle paths and walking trails along our river valleys. Our growing agri-food sector and craft breweries would benefit from this expansion of rural tourism.
We could go further and reintroduce the wolf, ensuring not only increased rural tourism but also increased biological diversity, as the wolves would maintain the deer populations at sustainable levels. We could also combine this with agriculture looking instead to different models of lower-intensity silvopastoralism and locally-grown organic production instead of a one-size fits all beef or dairy model.
However to do this we may first need to challenge the sacred cow in Irish agriculture. •
Cathal O’Meara is a chartered landscape architect and runs the practice