Farmers and landowners hold the key to positive change when it comes to nature-inclusive agriculture in Ireland. While many projects have been developed over the years and scaled up successfully, the long-term success will rely on the continued collaboration of farmers, local communities, government and industry working together to support one and other in the drive for change. It will also rely on ensuring that farmers see the positive impact they can make and equally that local communities see the positive change that farmers can make.
As agriculture accounts for over 67% of land use in Ireland, there is increasing focus on agriculture and its role in nature conservation and restoration. With the intensification of agriculture over the last few decades, Ireland’s once abundantly biodiverse landscape has suffered many losses, resulting in serious ramifications for wildlife and habitats. In 2019, the Irish government voted and declared a National Climate and Biodiversity Emergency, making Ireland the second country in the world to do so.
With over a quarter of Ireland’s bird species in danger of extinction, one-third of the protected species declining and the loss of just under 30% of semi-naturally occurring grasslands in the last 10 years, farmers have an influential part to play as custodians of the land, not only to protect biodiversity but also to enhance it where possible. About 70% of the number of habitats of EU interest in Ireland are negatively impacted by agriculture. Unsuitable grazing practices, commercial forestry-based activities, land abandonment and nutrient pollution are cited as some of the most significant pressures from agriculture on Irish habitats.
Organizations in biodiversity conservation
There are many organizations who are involved in biodiversity conservation, including local authorities and central government agencies such as Teagasc (Agriculture and Food Development Authority), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Marine Institute. However, the most influential and important players are landowners, farmers and local communities. As a whole, Ireland’s vision for biodiversity is ‘that biodiversity and ecosystems in Ireland are conserved and restored, delivering benefits essential for all sectors of society and that Ireland contributes to efforts to halt the loss of biodiversity and the degradation of ecosystems in the EU and globally’.
To achieve this, many projects have been developed across a broad range of sectors, but agriculture has notably driven many of these and has proven to be successful.
Farming for Nature Initiative
Farming for Nature is a not-for-profit initiative founded in 2018 to support farmers on a journey to high nature-value farming. The founders realized that farmers want to look after their heritage and that achieving positive results is much more attainable with the right support. The project started with a national award which was aimed to share the experiences and achievements of farmers across the country that were making positive changes to their practices to protect and restore nature on their farms and in their communities. The initiative started out rewarding farmers with an accolade to show that they are part of the solution and to use the testimonies to encourage more farmers to take up nature positive practices and create change. Five years later, Farming for Nature has grown to include farmers from all land types and sectors across the island. It seeks out farmers who do or wish to farm in a manner that will ultimately help biodiversity.
How do they achieve this?
- By building a network of exemplary farmers across the island.
- By celebrating the positive role farmers play in nature restoration.
- By making sure a ‘can do’ attitude is reflected around farming with nature.
- By enabling peer to peer knowledge exchange among farmers.
- By developing, practical, easy to read resources.
- By providing on farm support through extension services.
- By advocating for the nature-inclusive farming community.
The key to successful growth of Farming for Nature is not only involving the participating farmers but also its team which is made up by different farmers, researchers in nature and policy, broadcasters in agriculture and environment, ecologists, conservationists and educators. It is a truly collaborative effort, managed on a voluntary basis. The growth of the initiative over the last five years has attracted more and more participation and required more funding to support the administration of the project.
Funding partners include the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (DAFM), the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage (DHLGH) (responsible for biodiversity and nature restoration), Bord Bia (the Irish Food Board) and The Burren Beo Trust (landscape charity dedicated to connecting people to their place).
The Irish government has acknowledged how important of the work of the initiative has been. In the meantime, Farming for Nature continues to be a positive change maker and advocator for Irish farmers and their surrounding environment and has received second place at the Global Biodiversity Challenge awards.
The role of result-based payments
Agri-Environmental Schemes under the Common Agricultural Policy have been the main policy and funding mechanism for farmers to embrace sustainable changes at farm level. However, the performance of these schemes have come under scrutiny in recent years, due to the continued decline in biodiversity. They have been criticised for being more of an income support to farmers rather than achieving results. This has lead to the increased desire for results-based schemes to improve biodiversity and environmental sustainability.
Through EU LIFE funding, many results-based projects have delivered positive results in nature conservation and enhancement. Three examples:
- The Burren Programme, which developed an evidence-based approach to manage species-rich grasslands, habitats and water quality as part of livestock systems in the Burren, a protected limestone area in the west of Ireland.
- The Hen Harrier Project, encouraging farmers to manage habitats and grassland to provide the ideal conditions for Hen Harriers and paid farmers on actions delivered.
- The Pearl Mussel Project, which worked with farmers on nutrient management and river bank management to improve water quality to benefit the endangered freshwater pearl mussel.
Ireland’s first National Results-based Environment-Agri Pilot (REAP) Scheme
The findings from the locally led projects listed above showed that a result-based approach allowed farmers to manage actions that best suit their farm and have a better impact. The actions were assessed by trained agricultural advisors and farmers also received ongoing training on best practice for environmental conservation. The success of the projects has led to the development of Ireland’s first National Results-based Environment-Agri Pilot (REAP), a first for Europe. This two-year scheme was put in place in 2021 and 2022 as a pilot project to be evaluated by both DAFM and by the participating farmers.
The pilot project enlisted over 3.000 participants and paid out over 12 million euro in funding in 2022 for results achieved. It has since been scaled up to the recently launched Agri-Climate Rural Environment Scheme (ACRES) which will provide over 1.5 billion euro to participating farmers on a result-based approach.
Trust and positive encouragement are key to positive change
While the result-based schemes have proven to be successful, they will not solve the biodiversity crisis alone. It is important that farmers are given the opportunity through these schemes to identify what will work for them. Also, they need to be supported with other funding and schemes, both public and private.
Trust and positive encouragement between farmers and local communities is important, too. It is built through the work of organizations such as Farming for Nature and will continue to be crucial to speed up the progress of schemes such as ACRES.
Sharing learnings with the Netherlands
There is much to be learned from Ireland when it comes to a farmer-led, collaborative approach, not only in tackling the biodiversity crisis but also wider challenges in sustainability facing the agricultural sector. The Netherlands and Ireland have developed strong links over the last number of years, especially post-Brexit and there is ample opportunity for continued learning and collaboration on such topics between the two countries. Understanding the unique collaborative approach between the local communities, government, industry and farmers and sharing the learnings could provide excellent opportunities for similar projects to be developed in the Netherlands to take a leading step in tackling the biodiversity crisis.
If you would like more information on the initiatives mentioned, or to learn about the opportunities in Ireland to build a more resilient, nature friendly agricultural sector, you can contact Aoife Feeney, agricultural advisor at the Netherlands embassy in Dublin: firstname.lastname@example.org.