What precisely does it mean to farmers when they get the news that their lands are designated SAC (Special Area of Conservation)?
According to ecologist Mary Toomey, farmers on Kerry’s McGillycuddy Reeks feel they were never fully briefed.
EU laws direct that habitats and species must be protected across Ireland’s 13,500 square kilometres of SACs.
Now, a new Reeks scheme seeks to re-address this.
Participation means mandatory habitat awareness training; going onto the mountain and being shown why the land is designated, what it’s designated for; and what a habitat in good condition should look like.
It’s part of the European Innovation Partnership for Agriculture Productivity and Sustainability (EIP-AGRI), which is proving to be an exciting and novel approach to research and innovation across the EU.
Funded by the Department of Agriculture, the McGillycuddy Reeks Project aims to improve the sustainability and economic viability of farming the Reeks, by paying farmers to undertake environmental works in this “high nature value” farmland.
It’s an SKDP (South Kerry Development Partnership) initiative. SKDP CEO Noel Spillane explains, “Upland farming is challenging and, to be controversial, more challenging than regular farming, which leads to concerns around its viability and future. Economic returns are poor, considering it’s time intensive. You’re open to elements like rain and snow, and increased visitor numbers are leading to erosion of protected habitats.”
Project Manager Trisha Deane agrees. “Making a viable income from upland sheep farming is hard work.
“You’re up and down the mountain, for dipping, dosing, shearing, etc, in unenclosed mountain land. It could take two weeks to gather your sheep, the work input required is really significant.’
The locals were consulted first. Trisha says, “Normally schemes are given to farmers, they’re told what to do.
“A stipulation of this environmental project was consultation with farmers on the ground, to find out the daily difficulties of farming the Reeks. They turned up in big numbers to meetings. They’d never been asked what their issues were before. We are all about finding practical and achievable solutions to identified problems.’
For example, problems such as invasive species.
The Reeks habitat is especially impacted by two invaders, rhododendron and bracken.
Project Manager Trisha Deane explains, “Traditionally, the mountain had a combination of sheep and cattle. People stopped stocking cattle, regulations making them expensive to maintain. Issues then arose on upland bogs, things like gorse and bracken became dominant. Sheep don’t eat bracken.”
So the MacGillycuddy Reeks EIP project is training farmers on best practice pesticide use against invasive species, chemicals are only for “extreme cases”.
Farmers are encouraged to farm ecologically.
Education is provided on another controversial issue, controlled burning.
The Project does not encourage burning, in or out of (March 1 to August 31) the season. Ecologist Mary Toomey says, “Burning is not a sustainable answer. For dry heaths, it might be ok, but it’s not the best approach for most habitats.” Trisha says, “Farmers fear that when land gets overgrown and heather gets “leggy”, it’s rendered ungrazeable for sheep, resulting in payment cuts.
“We work in support of farmers and walk applicants’ lands to ascertain if it’s overgrazed, under-grazed, or the right level.’
It is the Project’s intention to reintroduce cattle breeds that eat prickly vegetation, the Kerry cow, Dexter, and the Droimeann, all native Irish rare breeds, all conducive to maintaining a healthy upland habitat. “They keep down gorse, trample bracken and fianán (purple moorgrass). You would still expect to find these plants, but with regular tramping, not out of control.”
Ecologist Mary says re-assessing stocking levels is paramount, although the Project has only the power of suggestion in this area.
“It’s easier to suggest changes on private land. In overgrazed areas, fencing and keeping sheep out will let it recover. With no boundary on the commonages, it’s harder to manage. Most of the area is SAC, with protected habitats and species up there.”
“That’s what the Reeks Project looks at. Farm payments are based on scores. I explain how we score their habitats, so farmers understand how it works and how they can improve, resulting in higher payments. If land is overgrazed, and they relax the grazing, that can improve the score. It’s all about getting a balance.’
Though concentrated on agricultural and environmental outputs, the Reeks Project is hugely impacted by agri-tourism, with climbing Ireland’s highest mountain, Carrantuohill, on many a bucket list.
According to Project Manager Trisha, “Walkers have a big effect on habitat. Following periods of high rainfall, ground is soft and churned easily underfoot. Not sticking to paths is a major problem. If ground doesn’t feel solid and comfortable, people veer left and right, resulting in paths getting wider, not realising it takes mountain land and vegetation longer to recover.’
To help prevent further habitat damage, a landowner/ ranger element is incorporated into the Project, part of which entails being present at some Reeks access points at busy times, advising users to stay on paths, and to adequately prepare for mountain conditions.
The Project envisages this will educate walkers, many of whom have no awareness of mountain terrain, or that they need to leave dogs behind.
Trisha says a farmer may have taken weeks to gather in sheep “only for them to be dispersed by walkers”.
By providing a diversity of training on ecology, ranger systems, path maintenance, and pesticide use, the Project hopes to instill new enthusiasm into Reeks farming.
Trisha mentions Kieran Doona, a fourth generation but younger farmer, who rears prize winning hoggets on his farm. “Trying to encourage young people to see farming the Reeks as a viable option is a challenge.
“By offering new training and education, we hope to breathe a bit of new life into it.”
The Reeks EIP is different to many agricultural programmes, strongly focused on carrying out works as part of a collective, encouraging a more traditional “meitheal” approach where farmers help one another.
SKDP’s Noel Spillane says that aside from combating isolation, the collective immediately improves economic gains, cutting outside contractor expenses.
The SKDP acknowledges that without farmers, the Project could not deliver on environmental outputs required to support biodiversity in our uplands. Trisha says, “There’s great goodwill, we were totally oversubscribed, we couldn’t bring everyone on board initially, as it is only a pilot project.”