Sligo ireland

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

I live in rural Ireland. I am not a farmer, I am an ecologist, and have in the recent past, made the move to escape the hectic bustling of Dublin’s Fair City. Although it is my origin and a county I truly appreciate and love, I have grown slightly tired of certain aspects of Dublin for a number of reasons. These include the usual offenders such as traffic congestion, the rat race, the housing crisis and the general normalisation of sitting on a packed train avoiding eye contact with other human beings by staring inanely into a screen and scrolling passively through social media!

Having moved to rural Ireland almost three years ago, I have a new found appreciation for community, locally sourced produce, the producers of these products (farmers!) and a greater appreciation than I already had for the beauty that can be found in some of the less anthropogenically impacted reaches of Ireland.

Tonight (02.10.2019) I attended a public consultation for the Post 2020 Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) Negotiations. After a long and tiring day in work, I was glad that I still made the effort to head into Sligo town and attend this event. This is because the two hours that I spent there reinforced a few things, and taught me some valuable new points to consider, which are particularly relevant while we all collectively move forward towards a more environmentally focussed, climate conscious nation – subsequent to the extensive recent protests and awareness campaigns that have been occurring globally, mainly led by young people, and well attended by people of all backgrounds and age-groups. 

Here’s some points I would like to list following the CAP consultation this evening:

1. Farmers, in general, are very proud of their land and like to work hard – they will do all they can to ensure that they are getting the most out of the resources that exist around them – this is a trait that the nation should appreciate and utilise to the benefit of farmers and the environment – as well as the economy.

2. Smaller farms are currently not well funded, particularly when it comes to having the revenue to implement environmental schemes on their properties, according to farmers attending the CAP consultation evening, the maximum payment received by a farm participant for meeting all possible GLAS scheme objectives is circa. €5,000 per annum (this is before the cost of implementing such actions has been deducted,and as such is a drop in the ocean when you consider the cost of working and living today). The general consensus at this meeting was that the current CAP funding is being squeezed for smaller scale farms and they are finding it difficult to afford to run their farming businesses in a profitable manner, often struggling to pay bills and put food on the table.

3. Farmers in the north-west (because this is where I live and the location of the CAP meeting that I attended) are well educated, clever, understand the system, see the pros and cons of the current CAP and are full of valuable lessons learned and solutions to the problems that they are facing on the ground.

4. And finally, there was a distinct atmosphere in the room that farmers are being largely blamed for the climate crisis and biodiversity loss, when in fact it is policy and economic growth (and greed!) that has lead agriculture towards larger scale mono-culture farms, uniform crops, and intensive agricultural practices.

I believe the following points would be useful to take from the above, and from the CAP consultation meeting:

1. To reiterate – Farmers, in general, like to be busy. Of the few farmers that I spoke to at the event, and between them and the many farmers that spoke out during the questions and answers session following the SWOT analysis discussion by the representatives of the Department of Agriculture Food and Marine (DAFM) – I got the sense that there is a real hunger for diversification of farming practices and implementation of proper environmental schemes that are based on scientific evidence, so long as this is appropriately funded and fairly incentivised.

To start on this point, I would like to take a look at some of the apparent failings, from a biodiversity perspective, that occurred within the recent Green Low-carbon Agri-environment (GLAS) scheme. I understand this scheme a little better than other past agri-schemes (such as REPS or AEOS).

Unfortunately, while some aspects of GLAS work well and appear to produce beneficial actions for biodiversity, some other issues have arisen with GLAS. I was informed by a number of farmers that their farm planners had provided them with actions and locations for these actions following a desk based assessment carried out by non-ecologists, often without a site visit being carried out. This has resulted in some actions being undertaken in inappropriate locations at the expense of biodiversity and, in some cases, sometimes leading to deleterious impacts as a direct result of the implementation of the GLAS scheme e.g. biodiverse areas of wetland being drained in order to incorporate winter crops for birds. Other actions, such as installing a pile of loose sand in the corner of a field, aimed to encourage solitary wasps, when it is more likely that this ‘habitat creation’ is only going to benefit the person selling the bags of sand! However we shall wait to see what evidence comes following more detailed statistical analysis of the results of this scheme.

The second item that I would like to touch on regarding Point 1 is that Irish Farms MUST diversify if they are to remain resilient to the various pressures and/or constraints that they face over the coming decades such as the climate crisis, economic change, and EU Regulations. In order for farmers, the custodians of our terrestrial carbon sinks – to survive and manage the land in a sensitive manner to encourage biodiversity and to reduce carbon emissions, the government MUST drive policies NOW that encourage them to do this. One target could be for the Government to inspire big businesses to fund robust eco-schemes on farms. We need joined up thinking and REAL communication and discussion between planners and farmers on this to come up with workable and successful policy making.

To expand on the above idea a little more… I believe that in todays westernised economy – with Ireland often being seen as a ‘tax haven’ for big businesses – it would be beneficial to the conservation of biodiversity in the long run, for the Government to fund and help to drive forward a marketing campaign that could target very profitable organisations such as large multi-nationals that are locating in Ireland. The aim should be to galvanise them to increase their ‘Green Credentials’ by supporting farmers in SUSTAINABLE FOOD SECURITY, PLANTING NATIVE WOODLANDS UNDER CLOSE TO NATURE PRACTICES (Silviculture – including regenerating, tending and harvesting of woodland crops, woodland crop rotation, diverse native planting e.g. hazel coppice woodlands, with larger broadleaved woodlands and including mixed species – fast and slow growing trees of different ages) and other similar initiatives. Similar marketing to that of the highly successful ‘Wild Atlantic Way’ project could be used to turn a simple, already existing resource into a source of investment and revenue. The revenue generated should go directly back into eco-schemes for farms and fund farmers who are implementing successful environmental projects on their lands. Thus the tax-paying Irish citizen is not the only one footing the bill to conserve our Irish heritage. If you want to locate your business in Ireland, and gain profits from the Irish economy – you should have to provide investment and support to the resources that you are relying upon.

Other diversifications on farms NEED to include the funding of renewable energy sources on low biodiversity lands such as improved agricultural grazing fields. This makes complete sense – farmers can continue to graze sheep and cattle in fields where wind turbines or solar panels have been installed. Such funding from energy projects could potentially allow farmers to lower their stocking levels while still remaining profitable, and achieving a source of income.

I won’t go down the road of crop and stock diversification here as that is an entire book, let alone a paragraph in one article! Suffice to say that NEW THINKING should be encouraged within Irish farming communities with incentives for carbon storing crops and low carbon producing stock – let me throw this wild idea out there – would the sustainable farming of animals such as ostrich and kangaroo really be a step too far for Ireland when cattle originated from the domestication of Auroch in southwest Asia and chickens are originally a jungle bird?! It seems mad, I know, but then many mad ideas have been successful in the past!

2. Farmers are not currently well funded – A reliable environmental scheme in Ireland should use appropriately experienced environmentalists/ecologists (preferably with experience in an Irish habitat context), who work alongside the farmer to identify areas which would benefit most from specific biodiversity actions. This would remove the middle man (often desk based planners who seem to have the greatest monetary gain from the GLAS scheme) and allow a good line of communication between a trained environmental professional directly with the person who knows their land the best, the farmer – and who should ideally be incentivised by seeing real results first hand and appropriately funded for this work. These actions should be monitored and assessed by their ecologist / environmentalist – who, through site visits, can also help the farmer to identify early on, potential failures in the actions and aim to help them to modify or rectify these as they occur, to ensure more successful outcomes. This is instead of sending department auditors whose aim might be to highlight failures and reduce GLAS pay-outs to save costs. We have examples of excellent eco-agri schemes in Ireland such as the ‘Burren Beo’ Life Project lead by Brendan Dunford. It is here, as well as in other successful schemes, that we should be looking for guidance following years of tried and tested methods used in an IRISH context.

3. Over-all, Irish farmers are experienced and well educated – Farmers understand their land, their crops and the cost of producing good quality food. Through farms that have been passed down from generation to generation, farmers have learned the pros and cons of managing the land through their own first hand experiences, and that of the generations that have gone before them. There is a HUGE WEALTH of knowledge there that is not being relayed to the youth of today, or to fully-grown men and women who live and work in more urban environments that have become further detached from the land and the natural world around them. This detachment often results in a huge lack of awareness, understanding or respect for the rural economies (nationally and globally) that sustains metropolitan lifestyles… often in an unsustainable and high carbon footprint manner.

There is a huge opportunity here in Ireland to encourage aneducation scheme that brings local communities closer (in cities as well as in rural areas) by allowing opportunities for school children to visit farms or have agriculturally trained individuals, whether they be farmers, ecologists, agri-environmentalists, agri-economists or agri-academics, to visit schools and teach first-hand experience of topics such as (1) sustainable and environmentally sensitive land management (which it should also be strongly reiterated is important for managing habitats to encourage greater biodiversity), (2) the time cost, monetary cost, resource and energy costs of good quality crop production for food and other produce such as natural fabrics (e.g. wool, linen and cotton), (3) sustainable crop management and animal husbandry… the list goes on… it is high time that we better educated our children on where their food, clothes and other products come from so that they appreciate these products and aim for sustainable produce – even if that costs a bit more given the cost of producing better quality sustainably sourced items. What better way to do this than engaging more with local agri-workers? This could be rolled out nationally to all members of society similar to the approach of the Biodiversity and Global Citizenship Biodiversity and Food Green Flag awarded by the An Taisce Green Schools Programme. If our population begins to value their environment and agricultural resources more, then I am sure we will grow to accept that funding these areas is hugely beneficial in the longer term not only for nature conservation and reducing carbon emissions but also for food security. Educating the population from an early age on the importance of these aspects in our every daily lives, and encouraging them to engage with the natural environment and support sustainable growth and self-sufficiency is so important. To create a more sustainable economy here in Ireland, we should be implementing policies that move the nation away from a heavy reliance on large exposable incomes, a dependence on social media for reassurance, and throw away consumerism – this will also have benefits for our physical and mental health, reducing some of the pressures on our health system and thereby helping the economy too.

4. We need to stop the blame culture and come up with REAL POLICIES, ACTIONS, OBJECTIVES and SOLUTIONS to the problems faced by Ireland in terms of climate change, biodiversity loss, water quality etc. Discourage monoculture (e.g. uniform coniferous woodlands), discourage agricultural intensification, encourage agricultural diversification, fund more sustainable forms of energy production and incentivise the custodians of the land to encourage biodiversity (offer training and education where this is required).

Echoing the words of farmers at the Sligo CAP Public Consultation Meeting, by ensuring that our Governmental policies aim to encourage and fund reliable eco-schemes and diversification of agriculture to lower carbon emissions and encourage biodiversity, let’s ensure that we ‘keep our farmers accounts out of the red – and their farms species-rich and green!’

Róisín

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