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North Connemara Locally Led Agri-Environment Scheme (NCLLAES)


The North Connemara Locally Led Agri-Environment Scheme (NCLLAES) is an upland European Innovation Partnership project funded by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. Catherine Keena, Teagasc; Joe Mannion & Cathy Connelly, NCLLAES, Forum Connemara have more information.

Authors

aCatherine Keena, b Joe Mannion, bCathy Connelly
aTeagasc, Crops, Environment and Land-Use Research Programme, Kildalton, Co. Kilkenny | bNCLLAES, Forum Connemara, Ellis Hall, Letterfrack, Co. Galway

Main Messages

  • Sheep can be an ecological tool
  • Incentivising ecological improvements or conservation techniques may make farming in upland areas more viable
  • Farmers should breed stock to suit their own hill taking into account its specific challenges
  • Incorporating technology into the farm will make hill farming easier

Introduction

The North Connemara Locally Led Agri-Environment Scheme (NCLLAES) is an upland European Innovation Partnership project funded by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. Forum Connemara CLG administers the project. The Operational Group includes members from Forum Connemara, Teagasc, NUIG, NPWS, Galway County Council and farmer representatives. The NCLLAES project covers two Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) - the Twelve Bens / Garraun Complex and Maum turk mountain ranges. The project integrates local farmers with individuals from the agricultural industry, to tackle the decline of the economic and social viability of farming in this environmentally important area. The objective is to increase the social and economic viability of farming in North Connemara using an environmentally and ecologically sustainable, ground up approach. The NCLLAES commenced in 2019.

Figure 1. Map showing the NCLLAES project area

NCLLAES in action

There are 95 farmers participating in the NCLLAES. Sheep farming is the predominant enterprise with over 90% of the participants being sheep farmers. The main sheep breed is the Blackface Connemara/Mayo. Lambs are mainly sold as stores weighing between 20-35kg. Some farmers have split flocks: blackface ewes and rams; and blackface ewes with a more terminal ram used to produce a heavier and more sought-after store for buyers. Blackface sheep produce light lambs with a lower confirmation than many other breeds. These animals are vital to the ecology in the project area. Blackface mountain sheep are the only animal that are hardy enough to survive the harsh conditions on these hills and also produce a saleable product. Some of these mountains are over 700m above sea level and yet blackface sheep graze on the very top. The NCLLAES aims is to integrate sheep farming practices with habitat improvements for the long term.

A survey is carried out on each farm to determine the quality of biodiversity on the individual farm. This is done by walking through each plot and recording every floral species and its abundance. Based on the presence and composition of floral species, the project team determine the condition of the habitat. Other factors which affect the quality of the habitat are also considered during the survey. Impacts which may affect the quality of the habitat include turbary, invasive species, drains, dumping and excessive scrub. Sheep are selective graziers, preferring herb species over grasses, causing these to be eliminated if grazing is too severe. For example a blanket bog in good condition contains a wide mixture of both grass and herb species including sphagnum mosses, cladonia lichen, tormentil, heath milkwort and bog pimpernel. Farmers receive a payment based on the quality of their habitats. Vegetation management recommendations are based on the findings of the survey.

Management of vegetation is incentivised under the NCLLAES. Due to difficulties in gathering sheep on these open vast terrains, some farmers sell sheep that wander too far away from the farm gate, leading to more sheep congregating in a smaller area. Areas of excessive scrub are also an issue on some areas of the hills. These areas are not grazed by sheep and can reduce the overall grazing area. Farmers are incentivised to coax sheep into areas of strong growth, using lick/feed buckets. The composition of the lick/feed buckets are based on forage test results. This measure may increase the grazing platform thus reducing the burden on areas that are more heavily grazed. Flock management involves ensuring the right stocking rate for each discrete area grazed by picking replacements for that area based on habitat quality rather than solely on ewe lamb quality. It also involves moving or shepherding sheep.

Improving the productivity of hill sheep flocks is also incentivised. Hill farming requires low maintenance hardy animals that can survive the tough terrain and produce a lamb each year to generate income. The NCLLAES incentivises farmers to remove problem ewes to reduce the possibility of undesirable traits being passed down to replacement ewes. Ewes with problems such as lameness or mastitis are identified through flock recording and removed from the flock. Genotyping breeding ewes and rams will help to make more informed decisions on ram and ewe selection for breeding. Targeted dosing of lambs is used to reduce anthelmintic resistance where dosing is based on results of faecal egg sampling. Added difficulties in undertaking sampling in a hill sheep system are recognised.

Conclusions and implications

The NCLLAES is a pilot programme attempting to find ways to improve the viability of hill farming in a difficult area. The picture postcard landscapes of North Connemara which attract tourists, depend on traditional farm management systems. Where farm management and habitat management are not complimentary, ecology can be damaged.  If farming is not financially viable, the number of active farmers will reduce.  Incorporating a payment for preserving or improving the ecology of a specific area may make farming these hills more viable in the future and may be more cost effective than recovering abandoned areas. Ecology and hill farming are intertwined. Acknowledging the added difficulties in using standard management technologies in hill sheep farming, the project is trying to increase their uptake through appropriate knowledge exchange and demonstration of such technologies. 

Farmers are interested in the locally led approach where farmers’ opinions are considered. They welcome the opportunity to try out actions on their farm. There is an opportunity to learn valuable lessons even where actions are not successful. The hope for this project is that it creates a foundation for an approach that brings framers and other stakeholders together to improve the viability of these upland areas.