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The curlew is on the "verge of extinction" in Ireland. Shutterstock/Andrew M. Allport
wing and a prayer

Irish bird numbers 'dramatically' declining with some species facing extinction

The warning comes from BirdWatch Ireland, with agriculture and climate change blamed.

BIRD SPECIES ACROSS Ireland are facing population decimation and extinction, one of the country’s leading conservation organisations warned today. 

Appearing before the Oireachtas Culture, Heritage and Gaeltacht committee this afternoon, staff from BirdWatch Ireland said that a combination of government inaction, climate change and intensive farming has left Ireland facing “dramatic” bird population losses. 

Among waterbirds, the population in Ireland has fallen by half a million, or 40%, in less than 20 years, according to figures contained in a report submitted to the committee today by BirdWatch Ireland. 

Of 12 different species of wader nesting in Ireland, 11 are in serious decline.

Mallard Mallard duck populations have declined significantly in recent years. Shutterstock / Jim Cumming Shutterstock / Jim Cumming / Jim Cumming

Among the birds most under threat are the curlew, lapwing and snipe – they have declined by 50% since the 1970s. 

The curlew and the corncrake, two of the most recognisable Irish birds, are now “on the verge of extinction”, according to the report. Only around 150 nesting pairs of curlew remain in Ireland – down from the 150,000 pairs here in the 1960s and 1970s. 

“The problems facing the curlew are so massive and widespread. So much needs to be done at different levels,” Anita Donaghy, the Head of Species and Land Management in BirdWatch Ireland, warned the committee today. 

The mallard duck population has also declined by over 40% in the last 20 years, as have swifts. 

The most frequent complaint received by BirdWatch Ireland, Duggan said, was in relation to the cutting of hedges during breeding season. 

Duggan suggested that road safety concerns – often cited as a reason for cutting hedges during breeding season – were often “used and abused”. 

corncrake The corncrake is one species noted as close to extinction. Shutterstock / Simonas Minkevicius Shutterstock / Simonas Minkevicius / Simonas Minkevicius

“A tipping point has been reached. People want to see more nature, not less,” she said.

New department

One suggested solution to Ireland’s biodiversity crisis was the creation of a department of the natural environment. This would take responsibility away from the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment.

Responding to a suggestion from Independent Senator Marie-Louise O’Donnell today, BirdWatch Ireland staff suggested that a new, dedicated environment department might go some way to effectively raising the profile of biodiversity issues. 

“We really need to step up our efforts,” Donaghy, said. “It’s important that the natural environment is given a much greater voice in the government of this country.”

“Stark choices” need to be made and a dedicated department would help those choices be made, Donaghy said. 

Oonagh Duggan, the assistant head of policy and advocacy at BirdWatch Ireland, was critical of the government’s decision not to hold a citizens’ assembly on biodiversity.

It was “disappointing, to say the least”, she said. “More and more information is being fed up through the political system and politicians are hearing it more on the doorsteps.”

kestrel Kestrel populations are declining in Ireland. Shutterstock / Milan Zygmunt Shutterstock / Milan Zygmunt / Milan Zygmunt


Ireland’s intensive agriculture sector also faced criticism today. In the report, BirdWatch Ireland states:

The main reason for the declines of many farmland birds is habitat loss – the widespread drainage of wetlands and damp pastures and the more intensive management of agricultural grasslands through reseeding and increased fertiliser use.

Speaking at the committee today, Donaghy said: “We’re talking about stark choices.”

“We can’t have intensive agriculture”, she said, without accepting that bird species will disappear. 

Some action will need to be taken by all farmers to reverse the damage to bird species and biodiversity, she said. 

Appearing at the committee today, Green Party leader Eamon Ryan called the presentation a “bleak picture, but an important picture”.

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