MEET IRE­LAND’S ECO-FARM­ERS

Farm­ing for Na­ture awards cel­e­brate farm­ers who pro­tect habi­tats and wel­come wildlife on their land

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - OUTDOORS - PHO­TO­GRAPHS: JOHNNY WHITE Sylvia Thomp­son farm­ing­for­na­ture.ie

You might think farm­ing with na­ture is the ob­vi­ous route to take but, over the last 40 years or so, main­stream farm­ing prac­tices have be­come so in­ten­sive that much of the nat­u­ral world it in­ter­acts with has been de­stroyed. Wildlife – an­i­mals, birds, plants and in­sects – have been killed off through the overuse of pes­ti­cides and fer­tilis­ers, wide­spread drainage of land and the re­moval of hedgerows.

Thank­fully things are chang­ing. And the ef­forts of a small but grow­ing co­hort of farm­ers who pro­tect habi­tats and en­cour­age wildlife to flour­ish on their land were cel­e­brated at the in­au­gu­ral coun­try­wide Farm­ing for Na­ture awards in the Bur­ren, Co Clare, in Oc­to­ber.

Launch­ing the Farm­ing for Na­ture awards, Fine Gael MEP Mairead McGuin­ness – a for­mer pre­sen­ter of RTÉ tele­vi­sion pro­gramme Ear to the Ground – said that ad­vice to farm­ers has come full cir­cle since she first worked at the broad­caster in the early 1980s.

“We told farm­ers to rip out hedgerows, drain their land and lash on the fer­til­iz­ers. Then we re­alised this cre­ated new prob­lems. By the time I left Ear to the Ground we were teach­ing farm­ers how to plant hedgerows, stop drain­ing their land and ques­tion the in­puts onto their land,” she says.

“I get very frus­trated at the ar­ti­fi­cial di­vide be­tween farm­ers and the en­vi­ron­ment. It’s harm­ful and it’s got to stop. Farm­ers are the peo­ple who main­tain the land­scape and sus­tain ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties. I’m ask­ing farm­ers to lead and take con­trol of the en­vi­ron­men­tal agenda on farm­ing,” McGuin­ness adds.

Bren­dan Dun­ford, di­rec­tor of the Bur­ren Pro­gramme, an agri-en­vi­ron­ment scheme that re­wards farm­ers for im­prov­ing the nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment on their farms, says the pur­pose of the Farm­ing for Na­ture awards is to re­shape the nar­ra­tive be­tween farm­ers and na­ture. “There has been a big divi­sion be­tween farm­ers and na­ture and that shouldn’t be the case,” he says.

Cork dairy farmer Donal Shee­han, Kil­dare mixed farmer Kim McCall, Achill Is­land sheep farmer Mar­tin Calvey, Roscom­mon cat­tle and sheep farmer Pádraic Cor­co­ran, Wick­low hill farmer Pat Dunne and Tip­per­ary or­ganic farmer Seán O’Farrell were the win­ners of the first Farm­ing for Na­ture awards in 2018.

Pos­i­tive re­la­tion­ship

Speak­ing at the award cer­e­mony held as part of the Bur­ren Win­ter­age fes­ti­val, each farmer out­lined the mea­sures they take to cul­ti­vate a pos­i­tive re­la­tion­ship with na­ture.

Achill sheep farmer Mar­tin Calvey, who was voted the over­all win­ner, ex­plained how he farms his black-faced moun­tain sheep on a four- acre farm with ac­cess to 20,000 acres of un­fenced, un­fer­til­ized up­lands. The sheep graze the mo­saic of pro­tected habi­tats from moun­tain to seashore, and the Calveys sell their award-win­ning Achill moun­tain lamb to lo­cals and chefs alike.

For Shee­han, it’s all about con­serv­ing wa­ter, in­creas­ing bio­di­ver­sity and spray­ing less fer­til­izer on his land in the Bride Val­ley in east Cork. Shee­han is also part of the Bride project, a ¤1 mil­lion scheme that re­wards farm­ers for look­ing af­ter habi­tats in bogs, ponds, hedgerows and wood­land. “It’s about putting a fi­nan­cial value on a non-pro­duc­tive part of the farm and it’s im­por­tant to have farm­ers adding value back to the en­vi­ron­ment,” he says.

McCall says that the va­ri­ety of habi­tats on his land in Calver­stown, Co Kil­dare, makes farm­ing more plea­sur­able. “I used to top [re­move] weeds but now I’m an ad­vo­cate of hav­ing some rag­wort and this­tles and I can en­joy the but­ter­flies and bees on them.”

Tip­per­ary farmer Seán O’Farrell be­came an or­ganic farmer 15 years ago. “I grow veg­eta­bles or­gan­i­cally and feed the soil with farm­yard ma­nure from pigs and chick­ens to cre­ate nu­tri­ent-dense food. I’ve been in­spired by those with a pas­sion for na­ture,” he says.

Cor­co­ran has been en­cour­ag­ing barn owls into the old build­ings on his farm in Mount Plun­kett, Co Roscom­mon. “We put in wildlife crops and feed­ers and now we see how the barn owls feed on the ro­dents that we pre­vi­ously put out poi­son for. If you re­spect na­ture, it will re­ward you,” he says.

Wick­low hill farmer Pat Dunne says that although farm­ing can be chal­leng­ing, there is no bet­ter way of life. “I’ve been work­ing with na­ture all my life and af­ter vis­it­ing the EU Bur­renLife project [ Ire­land’s first farm­ing with na­ture ini­tia­tive] in 2011, we formed a land veg­e­ta­tion man­age­ment group for the Wick­low com­mon­age. Farmer- led schemes like th­ese are bet­ter than farm­ers hav­ing schemes foisted on them,” he says.

Bio­di­ver­sity am­bas­sadors

Michael Maloney of Bord Bia, spon­sor of the in­au­gu­ral Farm­ing for Na­ture awards, says that farm­ers for na­ture are am­bas­sadors for bio­di­ver­sity. “I hope other farm­ers will ac­cess their work and fol­low th­ese ex­am­ples,” he says.

At the Bur­ren Win­ter­age fes­ti­val, John Sweeney, emer­i­tus pro­fes­sor of ge­og­ra­phy at Maynooth Uni­ver­sity, spoke about how agri­cul­tural emis­sions from in­ten­sive farm­ing in Ire­land could rise to 50 per cent of Ire­land’s non-trad­able emis­sions, ie emis­sions from ev­ery­thing other than large in­dus­try, by 2050.

“The EU Com­mon Agri­cul­tural Pol­icy needs to stop re­ward­ing in­ten­sive farm­ers and in­stead en­sure ru­ral vi­brancy with sus­tain­able agri­cul­ture and fam­ily farms,” he said. Speak­ing about the risks of chang­ing weather pat­terns in Ire­land, he added that bio­di­ver­sity was the in­sur­ance pol­icy for cli­mate re­silient farm­ing.

Liam Lysaght, di­rec­tor of the Na­tional Bio­di­ver­sity Data Cen­tre said it’s im­por­tant to re­mem­ber that bio­di­ver­sity can also put value on land. “Agri­cul­ture has been a key driver of species ex­tinc­tion. If we want to prevent fur­ther species de­cline, we re­quire high-na­ture value agri­cul­ture. When there are pos­i­tive links be­tween farm­ing and na­ture, we can turn around species de­cline. If farm­ers man­age 5 per cent of their land proac­tively for na­ture, the ben­e­fits will ex­tend to 100 per cent of in­ten­sive farm­ing land.”

We put in wildlife crops and feed­ers and now we see how the barn owls feed on the ro­dents that we pre­vi­ously put out poi­son for. If you re­spect na­ture, it will re­ward you

Mar­tin Calvey Achill Is­land sheep farmer and over­all win­ner of the Farm­ing for Na­ture awards

Pádraic Cor­co­ran The Roscom­mon cat­tle and sheep farmer en­cour­ages barn owls into his out-build­ings

Kim McCall En­joys the va­ri­ety of habi­tats and species on his land in Calver­stown, Co Kil­dare

Donal Shee­han Cork dairy farmer : “Im­por­tant to have farm­ers adding value back to the en­vi­ron­ment”

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