Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Farmers; not scapegoats but partners in conservation

Common sense is a great thing; when you hear it, you know it makes sense. That’s how I felt, listening to Sharon Parr explain how they farm for conservation in the Burren. It’s a vast area of limestone pavement in the middle of the west coast or Ireland, home to a profusion of wild flowers from March to November, including the Irish Orchid. It’s a hotspot for walkers and tourism and the jewel in the crown of Irish wildlife. Lots of invertebrates and archaeology abounds from Mesolithic to the enclosures era.

Half of it is designated as Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) and 6% is a ‘national park’ (with just one member of staff!) but almost all of it is privately owned by farmers who have eked out a living on what is now considered ‘marginal’ land. Whereas in Wales we used to send stock to the uplands in summer and to the lowlands in winter, the Burren farmers traditionally do the reverse, leaving the uplands, with all their flowers, fallow through the summer.

Modern techniques such as feeding silage are not good for the Burren; the consequent pools of slurry around the feeders pour through the limestone karst into the aquifers below. Also, cattle eating silage have less need to roam around grazing the vegetation and in particular the hazel scrub which is prolific here.

Since 2005 the Burren has received significant EU LIFE funding which has harnessed the knowledge and enthusiasm of farmers to operate in a way which is good for farming and good for nature. Whereas the local agri-environment scheme penalises you, for not implementing a meaningless activity (e.g. a 30 metre exclusion zone from monuments which might be relevant on arable farms but serves no purpose in the Burren), the Burren LIFE scheme rewards positive farming. It’s not about the number of stock or the grazing days, it’s about delivering a product and the main measure is species rich grassland. It’s up to the farmer to decide how he delivers the product, if he achieves it through grazing elephants, that’s his business!

Each field is scored (by Sharon or a colleague) from 1 to 10 with the higher score generating more money. 2 or less earns nothing, 3 earns €36 per hectare and 10 is worth €120 per hectare. There is no rule that says you can’t use silage but if you do, then that field will not be eligible for any reward. In recent years silage consumption has dropped by 61% and the trend is towards higher scores for the fields.

The shift away from silage has been helped by the creation of Burren LIFE feed; a concentrate with all the right minerals designed following an investigation of local vegetation. Cattle are given a couple of handfuls each day after Christmas, when grazing becomes less good, and it takes them just a few minutes to eat and lick out the trough as opposed to prolonged sessions at a silage feeder. In this way the cattle are put into good condition for spring calving.  Not only do the cattle get all the essential minerals, but the feed also stimulates them to even more grazing.

There are other possibilities to receive funding for agreed improvements such as scrub control, for gates, internal walls, water supplies etc. These all contribute to the bigger picture of bringing more land under management through appropriate grazing. For these works the farmers fund 25% to 75% of the total cost.

Does it work? The results have been spectacular and the Burren project is held up as an example of best practice – hopefully there will be an ‘afterLIFE’ when the current funding finishes in 2015.

Unlike Glastir in Wales, which has not been taken up by as many farmers as hoped for, the Burren project has been oversubscribed; 345 farmers applied but there was only room to accommodate 159. Those in the scheme have received on average €7,500 per year with the maximum payout €15,000.

I met a Llŷn farmer the following day who told me that under Glastir he would be expected to reduce the number of grazing sheep to just 37 of his flock of over 150. In his view this would be totally impractical and result in the land becoming overgrown and good for no-one. Fortunately farmers like this one have been able to receive targeted items of funding via Partneriaeth Tirlun Llŷn which seems to follow the common sense approach of Burren LIFE!

It also makes sense that these two projects are learning from each other. Sharon Parr was one of the speakers and participants at the Heathlands for the Future seminar held near Aberdaron on 8th to 9th October 2014.

There's a very informative website for the Burren which includes a short atmospheric film

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