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Time to think about wildlife on farms

Enda O'Hart, Drystock Advisor in Teagasc Castlerea outlines why he believes that now is the time to think about creating space for wildlife on farms. He looks at how farming has affected biodiversity and ways farmers might improve it going forward

The sustainability of Irish agriculture is a topic farmers will be hearing a lot more about in the months and years ahead. With the recent publication of the EU Green Deal Policy document it is clear that a lot more emphasis will be placed on sustainable food production.  Within this document is the EU Farm to Fork strategy which outlines how to make food systems more sustainable, and the EU Biodiversity strategy which talks about establishing protected areas, restoring degraded ecosystems, and providing financial aid to improve biodiversity.


What is Sustainability?

When we talk about sustainability in food production it can be broken down into three areas.  Firstly, economic sustainability which looks to see if all people involved in the supply chain are viable.  Secondly, social sustainability looks to see, are we producing food in a manner society deem acceptable and lastly, environmental sustainability looks at the effect food production has on water quality, climate change and biodiversity.  For the purposes of this article we will look at how farming has affected biodiversity and ways farmers might improve it.


One might ask, why is it important to protect biodiversity?  We need to protect it because biodiversity is essential to life.  Nature provides us with food, health, medicines, materials, recreation and wellbeing.  Healthy ecosystems filter our air and water, keep our climate in balance, convert waste back into resources, pollinate and fertilises crops.  Currently there is a biodiversity crisis.  The global population of wild species has fallen by 60% over the past 40 years and one million species are at risk of extinction.  In Ireland roughly one in every five species that has been assessed is threatened with extinction.  One in every third species of bee is threatened with extinction and we have 37 species of birds including curlew, hen harrier, twite and yellow hammer on the verge of extinction.  The once widespread corncrake is just hanging on in remote areas of Donegal and Mayo. 

Nationally we have many very extensive farming systems and recent surveys tend to show that within these farms we find high nature value farmland which is excellent for biodiversity.  Farmers here should aim to retain and maintain these habitats.

What can farmers do?

At the other end of the scale we find very intensive farming systems and these typically are not as biodiverse as the extensive farms.  These farmers should firstly look at their existing habitats and aim to retain and maintain these, and then look at creating new habitats.  Examples here would be to look at all their linear habitats like hedgerows, watercourses, field margins and stone walls. Hedgerows should be fit for birds and bees, so aim for a hedge at least 1.5m high and containing flowering trees and shrubs for bees.  Field margins should be at least 1.5m wide, uncultivated, not sprayed and allowed to grow out.  Watercourses should be fenced off from livestock and this margin allowed to grow out also.  Cattle should not have access to drinking points along the watercourse.  Other existing habitats such as woodland, bog, ponds etc. should be managed such that they are protected and improved if possible. Once all existing habitats have been retained and maintained, then farmers can look at creating new habitats.  Examples here might include planting a grove of native trees, planting new hedgerows, planting a crop for overwintering birds or create a new pond.  Lastly all farmers have areas they mow or trim regularly. Over manicured areas are bad for wildlife so why not try to leave part of this area un-mown and allow plants to grow, flower and set seed.  This would be excellent for bees and biodiversity in general.

Farmers have nothing to fear in any of these practices and making small changes will allow nature and farming to thrive together.