A person returning to Ireland after, say, 40 years abroad would be amazed at the vast changes in the landscape since the 1970s.
With large-scale levelling of ditches and hedgerows, big fields have been created from many small fields. All you can see in major farming areas are grass and cattle, stretching to distant horizons, with some wire fencing here and there.
It’s all about intensive farming and getting maximum productivity from the land. Nature and wildlife have been pushed to ever-diminishing margins, if not wiped out altogether. Wetlands have been drained, putting even further pressure on wildlife habitat, while once-common wildflowers are no longer seen.
The Government’s Food Harvest 2020 plan envisages huge increases in stock numbers and farm output, which has drawn predictable cries of concern from environmentalists.
However, there are also signs that attitudes are changing, though slowly. A recent RTÉ Eco Eye programme dealt with the plight of disappearing bees and included an interview with well-known east Cork farmer Donal Sheehan in his role as manager of a biodiversity project in the Bride Valley.
Farmers there are rewarded for helping wildlife. Those participating are provided with habitat plans that identify the most suitable wildlife management options for individual farms.
Farmers in the Bride River catchment, from Glenville, Co Cork, to Tallow, Co Waterford, are being asked, for example, to allow hedgerows, as well as wild flowers and other vegetation, grow on margins of fields. They are being paid for their conservation actions.
It’s believed to be the first pilot project in an intensive farming area and could be a model for many other parts of the country.
The need to provide financial incentives to farmers underpins the idea: the higher the wildlife gains, the higher the payment for a farmer. Farmers are also being paid for the ongoing management of selected, existing wildlife habitats:
- says Donal Sheehan
In his book, Whittled Away, Padraic Fogarty wistfully recalls a time when farming in Ireland was low-intensity and mainly organic, also accommodating a wide range of plants, birds and insects. Alas, this has been replaced by a production-driven range of subsidies with little regard for the environment. To maintain production levels, tonnes of fertiliser, both artificial and animal manures, have to be spread, often polluting rivers and streams into which it discharges.
Hopefully, the Bride Project heralds new ways of doing things.