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Sustainable upland management

Catherine Keena,Teagasc and Jim Kinsella, UCD discuss farming in upland areas, the challenges, the policies impacting on upland farming, and the sustainable management of uplands to achieve ‘Favourable Conservation Status’.

Main Messages

  • Uplands deliver many ecosystem services provided they are farmed sustainably and in ‘Favourable Conservation Status’
  • Financial supports should reflect all ecosystem services
  • Stocking rate, appropriate breeds and timing of grazing are critical to sustainable upland management.
  • Uplands comprise blanket bog, wet heath, dry heath and upland grassland, each with specific stocking requirements
  • The network of agricultural advisors could be used to engage with farmers on the sustainable management of uplands


There are approximately one million hectares of uplands In Ireland, 45% of which is blanket peatland. Blanket bog (active) is a habitat typical of the Atlantic biogeographical region in areas of high rainfall, with Ireland and the UK holding 99.9% of this habitat. Blanket bog generally has a peat depth of over 80 cms and if overgrazed, the peat layer is eroded. Wet heath has a peat depth of 15-80 cms and if overgrazed, it is slow to recover with erosion of peat and a monoculture of mat-grass or purple moor-grass develops. Dry heath has a peat depth of less than 15 cms with ling and bell heather dominating and if overgrazed, the heather disappears. Upland grassland is dominated by low-growing grasses and if under grazed, scrub encroaches with bracken and gorse/whins/furze.

Favourable Conservation Status entails optimum biodiversity. Uplands which are managed to achieve this status are farmed sustainably and deliver many ecosystem services including food production; biodiversity; carbon sequestration, water purification; flood attenuation; recreation; heritage and tourism. Such natural environments can also contribute to alleviating mental health problems, both in terms of supporting good mental health maintenance and recovery.

Farming the uplands

EU policies and in particular the Common Agriculture Policy (CAP), impact significantly on Irish uplands. Some 340,000 hectares are farmed as commonages by up to 15,000 farmers in Ireland while other upland areas are privately owned and farmed. Approximately sixty per cent of these commonages have an EU nature designation (NATURA). Increased stocking rates in the 1980’s in response to headage payments led to some overgrazing. In an effort to address this, over 4,400 Commonage Framework Plans were prepared, covering more than 440,000 hectares during the period 1998 -2002, and where necessary destocking was prescribed and implemented through Agri-Environment Schemes such as REPS, AEOS and the NPWS Farm Plan Scheme. The Single Farm Payment introduced in 2003 resulted in a reduction in sheep numbers on commonage. Some areas now suffer from under-grazing.

Current CAP Pilar 1 schemes include the Basic Premium and the Areas of Natural Constraint schemes. The CAP Pillar 2 Agri-Environment Schemes have evolved since the 1990’s and have always had a focus on upland peatlands. The current agri-environment scheme in Ireland, GLAS, incorporated two new key principles: firstly a ‘Sustainable Stocking Rate’ is the target; and secondly the GLAS Commonage Management Plans aim for this sustainable stocking rate on a collective basis for each commonage.

Of 23 European Innovation Projects (EIP’s) in Ireland, seven are located in upland peatland areas. These involve two large projects (in combination worth €25m) targeting the Hen Harrier and the Freshwater Pearl Mussel Project. Five smaller projects (worth approximately €1m each) are focused on upland management: Wicklow (SUAS); Carlow (Blackstairs Farming Futures); Donegal (Inishowen Uplands EIP); Galway (North Connemara Locally Led EIP); and Kerry (MacGillycuddy Reeks EIP). A new LIFE project ‘Towards implementing the Prioritised Action Framework for Ireland by protecting and restoring Ireland’s blanket bog Natura network along the Atlantic seaboard’ is also underway and due to run until 2028.

Farming in upland areas is experiencing socio-economic decline, presenting unique challenges including low farm incomes and an aging farming population. Issues of overgrazing, undergrazing and abandonment have resulted in some of these peatland areas failing to attain Favourable Conservation Status with reduced biodiversity including declines in iconic upland bird species such as red grouse and hen harrier, encroachment of Invasive Alien Species, and a reduction in high status water quality. Engagement with farmers is critical. A study on biodiversity knowledge exchange with Irish farmers (Keena, 2019) concluded that while farmers were positive towards biodiversity, it was not a priority for them. The study also found a lack of understanding of biodiversity, requiring advice and training. Farm advisors were identified as the key source of environmental information, and along with other farmers and family members were key influencers of farming decisions.

Conclusions and Implications

There is a need for full integration of biodiversity management policy into agricultural policy in Ireland. The network of agricultural advisors could be used to influence management on upland farms, using an integrated approach of all ecosystem services. The positive attitudes of farmers to biodiversity and their sense of place and pride in local heritage should be engaged to explain how the serious decline in biodiversity worldwide is associated with unsustainable management of uplands; how the decline in specialist species is being masked by their replacement by generalist species occupying their vacant niches; and how biodiversity includes plants and invertebrates as well as birds, mammals and trees.


Keena, C.E. (2019) ‘An examination of biodiversity management practices on Irish farms and how this can be measured: the case of dairy farmers in County Waterford’, PhD Thesis. UCD.