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Blackstairs Farming Futures (BFF)


The Blackstairs Farming Futures (BFF) is an upland European Innovation Partnership project. The Operational Group includes members from Teagasc, GMIT and NPWS. Catherine Keena, Teagasc Owen Carton, Tomas McCarthy, Thomas Gorman & Martin Shannon, BFF provide more information.

Authurs

aCatherine Keena, bOwen Carton, bTomas McCarthy, bThomas Gorman and bMartin Shannon.
aTeagasc, Crops, Environment and Land-Use Research Programme, Kildalton, Co. Kilkenny |  bBFF project office c/o Carlford House, Bunclody, Co. Wexford

Main Messages

  • Commonage groups can be established and operate effectively for farming and environmental goals which are not mutually exclusive
  • Knowledge exchange on upland issues is more effective through onsite visits
  • The social aspect of working together with neighbours is extremely positive, as well as sharing the workload
  • The Results Based Agri-Environment Payments Scheme for commonage is a potentially effective approach for inclusion in future agri-environment schemes.

Introduction

The Blackstairs Farming Futures (BFF) is an upland European Innovation Partnership project funded by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. Local farmers are leading the project. The Operational Group includes members from Teagasc, GMIT and NPWS. The project objectives are to develop: Commonage Community Groups (CGG) to provide a useful commonage governance model; Results-based Agri-environmental Payment Scheme (RBAPS) for upland habitats and commonage land; and Broader Community Engagement in the environment, culture and tradition of farming in the uplands. The BFF commenced in 2018. 

Blackstairs Farming Futures in action

There are 94 Blackstairs commonage shareholders, from nine commonages, participating in the BFF project. They represent approximately 21% of all Blackstairs commonage shareholders and cover an area of 1,202 ha. Seven of the commonages are in the Blackstairs Special Area of Conservation (SAC) and two are outside.


Plate 1. The Blackstairs Mountains are designated as a Special Area of Conservation because of the presence of European dry heaths and Northern Atlantic wet heaths. Regarded as semi-natural, they require farming at a sustainable level to protect and preserve them and as such are often referred to as a cultural landscape. Photo Thomas Gorman.

Three commonages were recruited in early 2019 and a further six in 2020. Each participating commonage formed a CCG with a constitution (“club rules”) and elected a Chair. The process of CCG formation involved a series of three meetings with the shareholders.  The discussions considered the project background, developing a constitution or rules for working together and the election of a Chair. It is worth highlighting the social aspects of meeting members through work is proving extremely positive.

Feedback from the three 2019 CCGs indicated they performed excellently with the members working collectively on implementing their work programmes.  The Chairs provided significant leadership for the CCGs though there are differences in how each one operated. The approach to and the development of measures on the commonages demonstrates the potential of the CCG’s capacity to take “ownership” of improving the sustainability of the commonages - for shareholders, habitats and cultural heritage. 

Plate 2. Members of the Ballyglisheen Commonage Community Group and the Project Ecologist, Thomas Gorman, doing a commonage walk-over in 2019.

Three commonages were recruited in early 2019 and a further six in 2020. Each participating commonage formed a CCG with a constitution (“club rules”) and elected a Chair. The process of CCG formation involved a series of three meetings with the shareholders.  The discussions considered the project background, developing a constitution or rules for working together and the election of a Chair. It is worth highlighting the social aspects of meeting members through work is proving extremely positive.

Feedback from the three 2019 CCGs indicated they performed excellently with the members working collectively on implementing their work programmes.  The Chairs provided significant leadership for the CCGs though there are differences in how each one operated. The approach to and the development of measures on the commonages demonstrates the potential of the CCG’s capacity to take “ownership” of improving the sustainability of the commonages - for shareholders, habitats and cultural heritage. 

 

Plate 3. The “sheep race” was one of the highlights of the Backstairs Farming Group Showcase event held in Rathanna village in 2019.

Conclusions and Implications

Nine Commonage Community Groups were established, and to-date are operating effectively. Actions to improve habitats are being implemented under CMWPs for each group.  The actions include boundary fencing, bracken and scrub control, prescribed burning, access road, improvements, sitka spruce sapling removal, keeping grazing records and the preservation of cultural heritage. Farmers are very interested in prescribed burning to manage overgrown vegetation; while this can be part of the effective management of uplands, inappropriate burning damages habitats. Working as a collective is considered by farmers to be more efficient and spreads workload – such as fencing commonage boundaries with adjacent enclosed land. Farmers believe initiatives such as the BFF encourage farmers to start or return to sending sheep to the hill.

A scoring system to evaluate the quality of the commonage habitat was developed and is used to determine commonage payments. Achieving best practice management on the uplands requires resources and co-ordinated efforts with an effective communication strategy. The annual Blackstairs Farming Group Showcase event is the main community engagement measure to date.

Significant progress has been made and the project initiatives will continue to evolve based on good communications and using the lessons learnt by the participating CCGs, the project ecologist and the Operational Group. The project outcomes will provide evidence to inform future agri-environment schemes for commonage and the uplands.