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Farming for Nature - Locally Led Agri-Environmental Schemes proving popular with Farmers

14 August 2020
Type Media Article

By Joanne Masterson, B&T Drystock Adviser, Teagasc, Galway/Clare

The Owenriff Catchment with the Maumturk and Twelve Bens Mountain ranges in the background.

There are a number of Locally Led Agri Environmental Schemes that have launched in the past number of years that are funded within Ireland’s Rural Development Plan (2014-2020). These schemes encourage locally driven solutions that address environmental and biodiversity challenges. The main aim of these schemes is to deliver long term benefits for biodiversity, ecosystems, water quality and importantly making a strong contribution to local economies and improve the viability of farmers who engage with them. Two of these schemes that are based in the West are the Pearl Mussel Project Scheme and the North Connemara Locally Led Agri-Environmental Scheme.

Over the past month I have been visiting farms in the Connemara area who are participating in one of these schemes; the Pearl Mussel Project scheme. The main aim of the Programme is to ensure long term co-existence of farming and freshwater Pearl Mussel in eight priority catchment areas in the West of Ireland and to protect and improve the conditions of the Pearl Mussel rivers and the local environment by maintaining and improving natural habitats.

What is the freshwater Pearl Mussel? The freshwater Pearl Mussel is a mussel species which is found in near pristine freshwater habitats. They can survive for up to 140 years; making them Ireland’s longest living animal. They are also on the verge of extinction in Ireland and Western Europe due to intensification of land use and over the past century the Pearl Mussel population has declined by 90%.

The farms I have been visiting are located in the Owenriff and Dawros River Catchments. The farm habitats that are of main focus in this scheme are peatland, grassland and woodland habitats, these are used as result indicators and the higher the quality of these habitats (scored out of 10) the higher the payments farmers receive. This approach provides opportunity and incentive for farmers to manage their habitats to a higher quality. It also gives an opportunity to farmers in these catchments to earn an additional income from their land. There are also a large range of Supporting Actions, such as the provision of drinking troughs, drain-blocking, and stock management, financed through the Programme to assist farmers achieve higher scores. This means maintenance and improvements are within the farmers control and allows flexibility to farm. This is an important aspect to both these schemes that farmers have control over what happens on their farm and are involved in the process.

I asked Mary MacAndrew, who is the Catchment Officer for the west and northwest for the project how she thinks the scheme will make a difference to biodiversity in the area? And will it help improve the Pearl Mussel population. “With a species like the Freshwater Pearl Mussel, it is very difficult to show the impacts in the short-term, however, within a single year of full operation, considerable benefits are evident on the ground. Over 100 hectares of peatland habitat has been rewetted, resulting in a large increase in the quality and payments for these lands, whilst not impacting the farming practices here. We anticipate increasing scores and payments going to most of our farmers in 2020, many of whom are delighted to receive voluntary advice on the management of their farm, rather than prohibition and penalty that has often been associated with SACs.

Also Mary says that the majority of farmers participating in the programme have given positive feedback to the team “Result based programmes are new to farmers, we are delighted with the positive feedback we have so far received. Farmers like the fact that they are in control so it is up to them how much they put into the Programme and their payment will reflect that. They also seem to appreciate that they have direct access to the project team so they can contact us if they have any questions and concerns.”

Another scheme which has launched in the past year is the North Connemara Locally Led Agri Environmental Scheme (NCLLAES). The main aim of this Programme is to ensure the long term economic viability of hill farming in the Twelve Bens/Maumturks area. It also aims to improve and maintain the important habitats in this area. Landowners in this area face challenges farming this vast upland landscape. The Programme will help to develop a landscape-based approach to recapture the historical tradition of overseeing local Commonage practices. Farmers who join the Programme meet with the project team to map out the way they farm their land, grazing platforms and when sheep are on the hills. The farm will then be habitat scored and a habitat improvement plan is put in place. Farmers then have a choice of options to help improve the habitats they farm. Some of these options include developing a Twelve Bens/Maumturks blackface initiative, where the indigenous blackface sheep bred in this area will be maintained and enhanced to produce an animal for sustainable management of upland habitats through grazing regimes, also the option to re-introduce suitable cattle breeds to manage upland peatlands and grasslands. In some areas there is also the threat of encroaching invasive species (such as the rhododendron); in this programme and also the Pearl Mussel Programme there is targeted scrub removal of rhododendron by non-chemical methods to enable the restoration of peatland and grassland habitats.

An important part of this Scheme is to develop farmer-led management groups to manage the uplands sustainably. This is an important aspect to the scheme as farmers are involved in the development of plans for the area. This will help with management of upland heaths and peatlands for future generations.

Project Manager for the scheme Joseph Mannion said that “local farmers are at the heart of the NCLLAES and giving them ownership of their part in the scheme sets it apart from previous Agri-environmental schemes. During the creation of the scheme, local farmers, and agricultural advisors were consulted. This led to this scheme being specifically developed for the North Connemara area, therefore the flexibility of the initiatives of the scheme captures the variety of habitats, landscapes and different farming practices of the North Connemara area. The uptake to the scheme was positive, with over 80% of the farmers who were invited to join, becoming active participants. Having plans that are tailor made to each individual farm is a positive aspect of the scheme for farmers. The plans also acknowledge the individual farming methods practised by farmers in the region and the variety of habitats and landscapes in North Connemara” At the moment the project team are currently carrying out habitat surveys on the participating farms and creating conservation and improvement plans for each individual farm. These plans include measures to conserve upland habitats, improve biodiversity and control invasive species.

Both of these projects have many positive aspects. Having the support of local farmers is a key component to the success of these schemes as it will be management practices that they implement that will help to improve biodiversity and farmland habitats into the future.