Scheme can enable upland farmers and the hen harrier to thrive together

Its diminishing population over the past 40 years has made the plight of the hen harrier a pressing issue, writes Denis Lehane

There has been a long search in Ireland for a hen harrier programme that suits all the relevant parties.

The relevant parties are the EU, the Government, environmentalists, farmers and of course, the humble hen harrier.

It’s amazing really to think that one bird, with an estimated 108 to 157 breeding pairs remaining in this country, can exercise the minds of so many.

But its diminishing population is the very reason why the plight of the hen harrier has become such a pressing issue.

The hen harrier is a bird of prey that feeds on small birds, mice and other mammals.

It will sometimes use cover, such as woodland edges and bushes, to surprise its prey.

According to a 2015 survey, produced by the Golden Eagle Trust, Irish Raptor Study Group and Bird-Watch Ireland, the fall in hen harrier numbers is due to changes in land usage, a decline in habitat and reduced food availability.

Described as a ‘valuable indicator of the health of Ireland’s countryside’, the fall in numbers of the hen harrier is clearly a problem that needs fixing.

In early December, Agriculture Minister Michael Creed, announced the opening of the €25m Hen Harrier Programme as part of Ireland’s Rural Development Programme.

The Minister made the announcement during a visit to the farm of Jack Lynch, who farms in the Hen Harrier Special Protection Area (SPA) near Ballyvourney, Macroom, Co Cork.

I met Jack to talk about his hopes for the scheme and of farming in an SPA.

Jack has been farming here for the past 20 years. He is married to Nora, and they have two sons, Conor aged nine and Danny aged six.

“My father, Con, died 20 years ago, this April. I was only just out of agricultural college at the time.

“Back then, we were milking 15 cows at home in a stall, we also had a few dry stock cattle. Most of our ground here would be mountainy ground, so we have always kept sheep.”

The sheep are mostly Scotch ewes bred with Texel, Charollais and Suffolk, to get a more lowland lamb.

Jack put up a shed 10 years ago to lamb his 150 ewes.

“Because 80% of them lamb down within two weeks, you literally have to live with them for that period.

“I try to have them out of the shed as soon as possible. Obviously any weak lamb, or any ewe that has two lambs would be kept in for longer. Perhaps for 48 hours.

“It’s really all about that first night. A lot of people would be questioning a hill farmer keeping them inside, as it is a lot of work. But I don’t know is it.

“If a raven or a magpie or the fox makes a set on your young lambs, you might be changing your mind very quickly. Once the lamb is strong enough to survive, out they go.”

As for the other wildlife that surrounds his farm near Ballyvourney, we move to the hen harrier.

“Ten years ago, we got letters through the door informing us that our lands had been designated for the hen harrier.

And we were subsequently promised compensation for the changes it would bring to our farming practices.

“They rolled out the scheme in 2008, but you could not get into the scheme if you were already in another environmental scheme.

“REPS would have been the main one at the time. So you had to wait until your REPS term was completed, before applying to get into the hen harrier scheme.”

About 4,000 farmers were deemed to have designated land, and were informed of their inclusion, but only 300 managed to get in to the original hen harrier scheme before the door closed.

Many farmers were left unhappy, as a result.

“A lot of us were left in a sort of limbo,” Jack explains.

“90 to 95% of farmers in the SPA areas failed to get into the scheme. And this was very unfortunate, because there can be a lot of restrictions attached to farming in a SPA area.

“You are required, for instance, to have a lower stocking density. You cannot remove ditches or hedgerows. You cannot dig up scrub land, to try to improve a field.

“Only at certain times of the year are you allowed to clean out drains.

“Burning is of course under strict control everywhere now, but especially in a hen harrier area.

“There was a widely held belief that land in an SPA area was devalued.”

In an effort to give a voice to farmers left out in the cold in SPA areas, a group called Irish Farmers with Designated Land (IFDL) was formed to lobby the then Agriculture Minister, Simon Coveney, and the present Minister, Michael Creed, to introduce a new programme.

“When the group started up first, if we were told that our ground could be undesignated, we would have walked away and said ‘that’s fine’.”

But of course there was no such option, and hence the launch of the new hen harrier programme last December.

“What they are really concentrating on now is habitat.

“Similar to what is being done in the Burren, payments are made on a scoring system.

“The better the habitat, the better the score. A farmer in the SPA will be rewarded with a higher score if his land is considered a good habitat suitable for the hen harrier.”

Farmer consultation, The Burren, Co. Clare

And at the end of the day, the hen harrier is what it’s all about.

“There were three hen harriers nested in the Mullaghanish, Mushera area recently,” says Jack.

“All had chickens in the past season, but only one pair successfully left the nest. The mortality rate can be very high. The most dangerous time for the hen harrier is during the months of July and August.

“The chicks are getting bigger, they are hungrier and are making more noise, with their parents away longer in search of food.

“At this stage, they are in more danger than at any other time from predators like the fox.” In spite of all that is being done for the hen harrier, nature can still inflict the cruellest blow of all.

What does Jack think of the new Hen Harrier programme?

“Hopefully, it will be successful, that numbers of breeding pairs will come up.

“And that in five years time, we will begin again with a new hen harrier scheme, taking the process much further again.”

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