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SUAS (Sustainable Uplands Agri-Environment Scheme)


SUAS (Sustainable Uplands Agri-Environment Scheme) is an upland European Innovation Partnership (EIP) project funded by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. Catherine Keena, Teagasc; Declan Byrne, SUAS Project; Monica Gorman and Helen Sheridan, UCD provide more information.

In this clip, Declan Byrne talks to us about the SUAS project which aims to develop solutions to challenges facing farmers and communities in the Wicklow / Dublin uplands.

Main Messages

  • Upland management requires long term planning at a larger spatial scale than individual commonage
  • Commonage management groups can be effective to deliver best practice management
  • Ongoing knowledge exchange between advisors and farmers is needed for successful upland management
  • A sustainable stocking rate and appropriate timing of grazing using appropriate breeds are needed to deliver best practice management of the uplands
  • Working in the uplands requires a certain level of fitness and an awareness of the additional hazards in upland areas

Introduction

SUAS (Sustainable Uplands Agri-Environment Scheme) is an upland European Innovation Partnership (EIP) project funded by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. Wicklow Uplands Council is the lead partner with Teagasc. The Operational Group includes Wicklow Uplands Council, Teagasc, UCD, NPWS, LAWCO, local farmers and specialists. The objective is to develop innovative and sustainable solutions to the economic and environmental challenges facing farmers and communities in the Wicklow / Dublin uplands. SUAS commenced in 2018.

SUAS in action

The project is open to commonage and non-commonage areas in the Wicklow and Dublin mountains. A total of seven commonages and three non-commonage upland farmers are currently participating in SUAS. Farmers in each commonage formed a formal commonage group with a constitution and elected officers. A process facilitator was contracted to work with the project manager to develop a template for forming the commonage groups. SUAS has produced a guide on how to form commonage groups (SUAS, 2019a) and a template for developing their constitutions (SUAS, 2019b). 

A baseline ecological survey was undertaken on all sites and proposed management recommendations were developed in line with the findings of these surveys.  These recommendations were discussed on-site on each commonage with the farmers involved in that particular commonage, the ecologist and the project manager. The actions to be undertaken as part of the farmers’ management plans were agreed between all ensuring they are realistic to deliver and will actually deliver habitat improvement.   

SUAS has been working with farmers to develop the skills necessary for successful upland management, including controlled burning, which was carried out on targeted areas on three commonages.  In advance, fire control lines were cut in the heather by a local contractor to allow for the controlled burning of small areas. The SUAS project provided training equipment and safety gear to the farmers involved in burning activities.  All necessary notifications and paperwork were completed in advance. 

Bracken is an invasive species which can threaten natural and cultural heritage when it becomes established. Under grazing facilitates its establishment. SUAS has also been working with farmers to control bracken growth on participating commonages, using hand-held sprayers, tractor and quad mounted sprayers, a bracken bruiser and the introduction of grazing with cattle and horses.

In addition to stocking rate, timing of grazing of upland areas is also critical to maintain their ecological integrity. Timing of grazing is a significant issue in the Dublin / Wicklow uplands, where frequently there are too many sheep during the summer months but insufficient numbers grazing over the year as a whole (See Table 1). SUAS is working with farmers to increase sheep numbers grazing over the winter months. Areas are targeted for grazing using feed buckets to entice the sheep into particular locations further up the hills away from the grassy areas at the bottom.

Figure 1. Seasonal grazing patterns in the Dublin / Wicklow uplands

Hill farming can be challenging and time consuming for farmers and according to McGuire (2015), many don’t believe it is financially worthwhile for them to engage in. SUAS has recognised and addressed this through the development of a measure which involves paying one farmer to go up the commonage to shepherd all sheep so other graziers don’t need to go up as often.  The commonage group decide who does the shepherding and the job can be rotated around or someone hired in to do it if that is required.  Alternatively, farmers on some commonages undertake their own shepherding and are financially rewarded for doing so.

Health and safety is a serious consideration for farmers and contractors working in the uplands. A certain level of fitness and an awareness of the physical environment is needed. Guidance for farmers on health and safety in the uplands has been developed by the SUAS project in consultation with farmer participants and specialists in the area of health and safety.

Conclusions and implications

Management of unenclosed upland can be complex with many townlands grazed as one common unit rather than in isolation. As a consequence, land management planning needs to be undertaken at a larger scale such as the Wicklow Mountains National Park. Planning also needs to be long-term as changes in management can take time to result in ecological or environmental improvements.

Commonage Groups are an effective means of getting farmers on individual commonages working together. This is essential for the management of these complex areas and the habitats that are associated  with them. The engagement of farmers in drawing up management plans for their own upland area engenders ownership and empowerment resulting in a higher level of delivery.

Best Practice grazing management requires a sustainable stocking rate, appropriate timing of grazing and appropriate sheep breeds which spend most of the year on the hill without requiring large amounts of supplementary feeding. A number of farmers in the SUAS project are now running two flocks of sheep on their farm: one to graze and manage the uplands; and a separate high output lowland flock to maximise production on the lowland area of the farm.

Education of farmers and advisors in the development and demonstration of best practice management, together with associated cost: benefit analysis is key to successful management of upland areas. The maintenance of habitats in good condition (Favourable Conservation Status) is a key product of hill sheep farming. The biodiversity and ecosystem services associated with uplands are valuable public goods that need to be recognised and farmers financially rewarded for their efforts to maintain and enhance them.  

References:

Authors:

aCatherine Keena, b Declan Byrne, cMonica Gorman and cHelen Sheridan 
aTeagasc, Crops, Environment and Land-Use Research Programme, Kildalton, Co. Kilkenny | bSUAS Project, Parish Hall, Main Street, Roundwood, Co. Wicklow | cSchool of Agriculture and Food Science, University College Dublin, Belfield, Dublin 4