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Apocalypse now? Climate change on the front line

We know what the science says on climate change, Colm McGuirk asks if those working the land and sea agree
Photos by Johannes Strötker and Augustin Piñero respectively via

Though the debate on the existence of human-caused climate change is pretty much over, for plenty of us it remains a vague, future concern.

But for those who interact with the land and sea daily — and whose livelihoods depend on some degree of climate stability and predictability — its effects are already apparent.

A lifetime spent working the land has left farmer Ollie Whyte with plenty of evidence to corroborate the grim projections of scientists and environmental organisations.  

Together with his family, Whyte farms over a thousand acres around The Naul in North county Dublin. Their primary engagement is growing wheat and barley, though the farm is home to a sizeable herd of livestock too. 

“Of course we’ve seen climate change,” he tells The City.

“Maybe not as drastic as what is made out, but absolutely it’s there and it’s real.

“We have more extremes in the weather. There’s not the consistency we had. We’re going from very wet to very warm and back to wet.

“Drought, flooding and whatever else. Things are happening more often. You used to be able to reel off all the dry years. You’d get a dry year then five or six years of average climate. Now we’re getting wetter spells for longer and dryer spells for longer,” he says.

“In my younger days we could sow right up to the middle of December, but we can’t do that now”

Ollie Whyte

For tillage farmers, there’s more at stake here than how often the barbecue can come out. 

“Your window of opportunity to do a particular job on the farm to match in with the growing season has been reduced,” Whyte explains.

“We sow a lot of crops at the end of September up to the first of October. After that we stop as there’s a high risk of losing your crop.

“In my younger days, we could sow right up to the middle of December, maybe three years out of every five or six. But we can’t do that now [because of the risk of torrential rain].”

Whyte highlights a second factor in this altered sowing season — seeds planted later would now be “vulnerable to attacks by crows”, since the withdrawal some years back of a bird-repellent seed dressing deemed harmful to the earth. 

“But the main reason,” he says, “is the risk that if you sow a crop and then you get two or three weeks of prolonged wet weather, the seed will rot in the ground if it’s submerged in water for that length of time. That wouldn’t have happened back in the day.”

Agriculture is itself a major contributor to a host of global environmental concerns, as Ollie Whyte is well aware.

Photo of shovel in soil by Lukas via

He reels off the carbon tonnage per hectare for production of Irish grain, beef and dairy, and Brazilian maize (the numbers ascend in that order).

A bone of contention for Whyte is the environmental short-sightedness in the Government’s failure to promote the purchase of Irish-grown animal feed over its cheaper Brazilian counterpart, which produces 22 times more carbon. 

The Whytes have taken a number of measures to reduce their own farm’s carbon footprint —  easier to do on a farm of their size and scale, as Whyte points out. A kerosene burner for drying grain was upgraded to a biomass one in 2015; forestry is planted on an ongoing basis; a couple of kilometres of hedge have been planted recently and fields kept relatively small to promote biodiversity. 

“We kind of feel we’re targeted unfairly a lot of the time,” says Whyte of Irish farmers. “Of course we have to accept our responsibilities, that’s for sure. But as farmers we’d be as concerned about [climate change] as anyone else, and we’re one of the few that are trying to do something about it.”

Fishing nets on a boat. Image by Bedis Elacheche via

In county Wexford, Denis O’Flaherty’s decades of fishing the waters off Ireland have left him as convinced about climate change as Ollie Whyte. Along with his three brothers, O’Flaherty runs OF Fishing out of Kilmore Harbour. 

“You don’t have the really cold temperatures that you had back in even the 80s,” he tells The City, “but you do see more extreme wave conditions, the high velocity wind and that sort of thing. I think they’re becoming more prevalent. Wind is a big problem for us. 

“In certain wind conditions — what we call a south-east wind — we can’t get out of Kilmore Quay, and Dunmore East [in Waterford] is the same. That’s becoming more frequent all the time because it’s just too dangerous. We need a bigger investment in harbours.”

A more contentious observation is the near-disappearance of certain fish populations from Irish waters.

“When we started back in the 80s,” O’Flaherty says, “we got plenty of cod, which is a cold water fish. But now cod has got so scarce, unbelievably scarce. And it’s my belief that it’s not from overfishing, it’s the warmer waters. Because if you go up to Norway now, they have an abundance of cod.”

O’Flaherty’s downplaying the impact of overfishing remains, to say the least, open to challenge — according to BirdWatch Ireland, the cod population in the Celtic Sea has fallen by 88% since 1981.

A recent Marine Institute report, however, suggests that Ireland’s waters are indeed already seeing the effects of global warming. Dr Caroline Cusack said, “By looking at the data on harmful algal blooms over the past two decades, we can see that climate change is already having an impact on our marine environment. Harmful algae usually bloom during the warm summer season or when water temperatures are warmer than usual.”

There have also been reports of fish species normally found in warmer waters showing up off the Irish coast.

“What you would never have seen 20 or 30 years ago,” O’Flaherty says, “is bluefin tuna. Now it’s in abundance off the south coast of Ireland at certain times of year. As it gets warmer, you can see the species changing. We seem to have an increase in haddock too on the south coasts.”

“Extreme wave conditions, high-velocity wind, they’re becoming more prevalent”

Denis O’Flaherty

Frustratingly for Irish fishermen, the likes of bluefin tuna has to be left to French and Spanish vessels to fish from Irish waters, as EU quota allocations have not caught up with these migrations. 

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