Stories about the state of the planet often start with scary numbers and end without offering much in the way of proven solutions. Bucking that dismal trend is the story of rewilding at the Dunsany Estate in County Meath. The rewilding project has given rise to some extraordinary and unexpected developments, including the return of several species of animals, plants and insects. Claire Byrne spoke to Baron of Dunsany Randal Plunkett about letting nature take over 750 acres of former farmland. Claire also heard from Pádraic Fogarty of The Irish Wildlife Trust about the importance of rewilding in coping with the climate emergency.
Claire asks Pádraic Fogarty to explain what rewilding is all about. Pádraic says it's an important way to start restoring the country's natural ecosystems, which he says are in as bad a state as they could be:
"In Ireland, we don’t have any natural ecosystems. We've basically destroyed them all."
Claire stopped Pádraic in mid-stream, just to double check that she had heard right; namely that human activity has put an end to the country’s natural ecosystems – all of them? Pádraic explains:
"Pretty much. Our native forests are about one percent of our land, we don’t have any healthy bogs, our seas have basically been destroyed and overfished from bottom trawling. So, the human pressure in Ireland is more or less 100%. Rewilding is a chance to reverse that damage."
The writer and wildlife campaigner says that many scientists support the idea that rewilding can form part of the solution to the climate crisis:
"The International Union for the Conservation of Nature published a paper, supported by the scientific community, that identified rewilding as extremely important as part of our response to the climate and biodiversity emergency."
Claire asked Randal Plunkett what prompted his decision to turn parts of the working farm at Dunsany into a nature conservation project? Randal says that historically, his family has been at the cutting edge of developments in industrial agriculture; but the climate emergency necessitates a new approach:
"Times have changed. Climate change is very much the fight of our time."
When his father died in 2011, Randal inherited the title Lord Dunsany and the castle and the estate passed to him. Randal decided almost immediately to turn hundreds of acres of his land over to nature; to leave it go wild and see what would happen. Randal says he was moved by sense of responsibility to take care of this valuable resource:
"One thing that I think has been neglected largely in the past was how important our nature is to our culture. This is a culture that celebrates its language, celebrates its history. We’re not celebrating our nature and we would have very little without our nature. It was nature that fed us: it’s nature that will give us a future."
Rewilding doesn’t pay in the short term, Randall says, but he thinks it has to be done:
"You can’t base our future on what you get today. The problem is, this is something that has to happen all the way around the world. The UN has said that we need to rewild an area the size of China to combat some of the problems that we are having."
Pádraic Fogarty of The Irish Wildlife Trust says that farmers will need to be compensated to make the change:
"We spend billions in subsidies which are mostly damaging to nature. We could redirect those subsidies so we could encourage landowners to help to restore native forests, to restore bogs, to re-flood land for rivers, for instance. Paying farmers for these things is something we have to do."
Randal Plunket says that it will be possible to find a way to produce food that also allows nature to regenerate itself:
"We managed to feed the world with industrial farming, at the cost of nature. Now we’re at the stage where we need to evolve industrial farming to a more environmentally friendly way and still feed the world and also protect our environment."
So, what does happen when acres of former farmland are allowed to run wild? Randall says that when he started, he didn’t know what would happen. His neighbours told him the fields would be overrun with weeds and he didn’t believe them. His neighbours were right - at first anyway. There was an explosion of ragwort and thistles everywhere, which Randall initially tried to control by hand. He gave that up and things gradually changed of their own accord:
"I started seeing ragwort disappearing and instead wildflowers and different kind of ferns, silverweed, all these sorts of things started appearing. Because what I discovered, Claire, was the default setting is biodiversity. And that’s the power of rewilding."
As the ecosystem responded to being left to its own devices, all kinds of wonderful things began to happen, Randal says:
"The advances are fantastic: insects have exploded. We had massive amounts of different grasses and flowers and plants that I’d never seen before. We have averaged at least one animal return per year."
Scientists from Trinity College Dublin and DCU are currently engaged in studying the developments that have been taking place in Dunsany, including the return of plant and animal species:
"We’ve had deer, we’ve had the return of the otter, we’ve had woodpeckers for the first time in 100 years, we have red kites, we have buzzards, we have peregrine falcons, we have owls; we have had all these things. And the thing is when I started, we had crows."
There is much to study, Randal says; particularly when things happen that nobody predicted:
"It’s not just animals returning, we’ve seen behavioural change in the animals. One such behaviour change that is fascinating – we're studying it this year – is that the deer have started turning on some of the invasive species, which is fascinating. So, what that means is that they’ve been destroying things like cherry laurel and rhododendron, which, I know many people in the Kerry National Parks would be very jealous!"
The rewilding continues, and there is no way of knowing what it will throw up, what lessons will be learned. Randal says it’s a question of being patient and letting nature take its course:
"There is really a question mark, what happens, given enough time. Like I said, we’ve started seeing things going after invasive species, which do not make sense, because as far as I’ve found, as far as the scientists have discovered, there’s no examples of this happening in Ireland. What’s happening at Dunsany is unique."
There’s a fascinating discussion about the pros and cons of re-introducing animals like wolves, lynx and wild boar in Ireland in Claire’s full interview with Randal Plunkett here.
You can find out more about the Irish Wildlife Trust here.