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The problematic nature of ‘the national herd’

By Mindo - 10th Jan 2022

The way in which our countryside is farmed is in urgent need of re-evaluation

Picture, if you can, a sight I see every day during the spring and summer as I drive about in rural Ireland. A vast field of the greenest grass sweeps into the distance: A hundred or more black and white cows are scattered about, as if they are arranged by a divine childish hand; a farmer trundles by in his big green tractor; and, in the distance, a forest wraps around a blue mountain, rolling down to the river Shannon.

It is a sight straight from a tourism brochure. If photographed, it would adorn a website for Ireland’s green and pleasant land. Much as I like to admire the view on my doorstep, I cannot help wishing that it were different. I don’t know who came up with the expression ‘The national herd’. It is a label straight from De Valera’s Ireland. You could imagine it written in Celtic script, adorned with harps and round towers. Opportunistic politicians have given this national herd a kind of untouchable sanctity, as if reducing it would violate the very foundations of Irish life and culture, as well as betraying the men of 1916.

The fact is that there are too many cows in Ireland. Any farmer knows that if there are too many of one thing the shrewd thing to do is reduce the numbers and invest in something else. The Famine was a grim lesson in the danger of monoculture. Quite apart from the methane emissions, if we have a dry summer, food has to be imported to feed them, and Brexit has not made that easier.

Irish milch cows have a comparatively easy life. In most countries they are locked away in silos, eating gruel grown in cleared rainforests. At least Irish cows feel the sun on their backs, despite the cruelty of having their calves taken from them, and, if they are male, slaughtered. What do we do with all this milk? A lot of it goes to China, shipped around the world by burning fossil fuel to feed babies who really should be breast fed. It wouldn’t take long for the Chinese to work out how to get their own dairy industry going. Then we will be reduced to selling our milk powder to Africa at half what it takes to produce it, and putting the African small farmer out of business.

Will Europeans want our milk, cheese, and butter, no matter how appealing the Bord Fáilte photographs,
if we continue to desecrate our green credentials? The sward of grass we see is an alien monoculture: Rye
grass, drenched in synthetic chemicals. There are no flowers, no birds, no bees living in it. The artificial fertilisers, weedkillers, and pesticide poisons, which are sprayed on these fields runs down to the river, and pollute that too. The forest was planted on a bog, which was once a valuable carbon sink and home to endangered plants. The toxic run off from the Sitka spruce woodland pollutes the water even more and, because the precious wetlands are gone, the river floods in winter.

The solitary farmer in the tractor is in huge debt. He owes the bank for the milking parlour, the poisons he uses on the land, and the tractor itself. Despite the subsidies, he is barely making a living and the multinational supermarket that buys his product makes a huge profit from his labour. Now picture, if you can, the scene transformed. The huge field has had the hedgerows which were torn out years ago restored. They stop flooding and soil erosion, give livestock shelter and act as wildlife homes and corridors. The field has been divided up and grows crops for humans. All those turnips and carrots and potatoes that had been shipped in from abroad are now grown
locally and sustainably.

The wood is rewilded with native species and the bog is regenerating, stopping floods and capturing carbon. Meat and dairy products are still produced, not to churn out toxic fast food but as a rare and high-end addition to our diet. There are ponds full of wildlife and the air is full of birdsong. The countryside is a place of employment and recreation, and biodiversity is restored. Many more people can work on the land in a sustained agroforestry model.There are many benefits for us to change from abusing the land for the profit of the few. For the sake of us all the picture has to change.

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