Creating a buzz about diversity will benefit all

Kim McCall with a bucket full of biochar used on his farm in Calverstown, Kilcullen, Co Kildare. Picture: michaelorourkephotography.ie
Kim McCall with a bucket full of biochar used on his farm in Calverstown, Kilcullen, Co Kildare. Picture: michaelorourkephotography.ie

Kim McCall says he’s never been one for reading the instructions. He’s always farmed his own way, and his own way, he says, involves “working with nature and not against her”.

The Kildare farmer and his wife, Mireille, own a mixed livestock stock farm in Kilcullen, Co Kildare, where they have a herd of 150 pedigree Aubrac cattle, 80 sheep, and raise a small number of pigs in the summer.

However, Mr McCall doesn’t only manage his land for his four-legged livestock: he’s a fervent biodiversity enthusiast who also manages his land for Ireland’s threatened pollinators.

“Biodiversity is life. The more biodiversity you have, the more life you have,” says Mr McCall.

Now, he’s part of a new European Innovation project that the All-Ireland Pollinator Plan is starting with 40 farmers in Kildare, to highlight the vital role farmers play, as custodians of much of our countryside, in the fight to save Ireland’s threatened bee species.

There are 20 species of bumblebee and 77 species of wild solitary bee in Ireland, and one third are facing the threat of extinction. 

The All-Ireland Pollinator Plan 2015-2020 is hoping to combat this threat, which is catastrophic not only for biodiversity, but also for human food production.

Pollinating insects like bees, hoverflies, and butterflies fertilise flowering plants by transferring pollen from flower to flower and are responsible for propagating up to 90% of all plants. 

Kim McCall beside his flowery native and non-native species of pollinator plants at his farm in Calverstown, Kilcullen Co Kildare. Picture: michaelorourkephotography.ie
Kim McCall beside his flowery native and non-native species of pollinator plants at his farm in Calverstown, Kilcullen Co Kildare. Picture: michaelorourkephotography.ie

And that includes our food. It’s estimated that pollinator-dependent crops like apples, strawberries, tomatoes, and oilseed rape are worth €53m to the Irish economy each year.

The main dangers to pollinators include habitat loss, food scarcity due to the decline in hedgerows and wildflowers, often linked to fertiliser-aided monocultural grass production on farmland, poisoning from pesticides, and disrupted seasons due to climate change.

Mr McCall took over his farm from his parents, who bought their 214 acres in the 1950s. 

While he says the land has always been farmed “as ecologically efficiently as time allowed”, working with Úna Fitzpatrick, who heads the All-Ireland Pollinator Plan, has opened his eyes still further to the importance of protecting and providing habitats for pollinators.

“I always thought that bumblebees were just bumblebees and it was only when I met Úna that I learned that there’s 20 different species of bumblebee,” he says.

“When we went out recording them on the farm, we found at least 10 of those species here, which is brilliant. Education opens your eyes.”

About 30 acres of the McCalls’ land is given over to trees, mature hedgerows, wildflower species, and wet grasslands, and they also maintain gravelly, earthy, and sandy banks to allow burrowing solitary bee species to nest.

Mr McCall says there are observable results for the species of pollinators on his land. 

Yesterday, I was watching holly blue butterflies flying around the garden outside my back door while we were having lunch; you don’t see that on every farm.

“There are bumblebees by the dozen, and other species including migrant butterflies, and all the bird life as well,” he says.

Many farmers feel caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to the environment; they’re urged to play a more responsible role in managing their land for biodiversity, while at the same time being financially rewarded for high yields and increased intensification under the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).

It’s a conundrum Mr McCall acknowledges. 

“Farmers are encouraged to farm their land to the absolute maximum, and that means getting rid of trees and using every last strip of land for grass or crops or whatever,” he says.

When it comes to striking a balance, he says, “a lot of farmers just don’t know what to do. We need to be educated and we need to be encouraged and unfortunately there isn’t always a lot of money in that.”

He also believes that intensification and monocultures are not only bad for ecological systems, but also for a farmer’s commercial resilience.

“If we keep going down monoculture route in farming, it’s going to end in tears,” he says.

“If you have a diverse farming landscape and crops, it’s much more resilient. Your profit margins might be less, but if you have several enterprises on the go and one doesn’t work out, it’s just not a good year. 

"If you’re only doing one thing, you’re very vulnerable: even just a year of bad weather, or a price collapse, and you’re in big trouble.”

It’s a philosophy that’s increasingly evidence-based; in 2014, the UN’s special rapporteur on the right to food warned that, contrary to received wisdom on the need to intensify food production, small farmers and an “agro-ecological” approach would be vital in feeding the growing global population.

The All-Ireland Pollinator Plan is asking farmers to contribute to five actions that they’ve developed in consultation with farmers and farming groups:

  • Maintain native flowering hedgerows
  • Allow wildflowers to grow around the farm
  • Provide nesting places for wild bees
  • Minimise artificial fertiliser use
  • Reduce pesticide inputs

Although Mr McCall’s farm isn’t certified organic, he doesn’t use pesticides or chemical fertilisers on his land; recent studies have shown commonly used sprays like glyphosates can damage bee health and navigation, but this is only one reason farmers should consider breaking the vicious cycle of spraying, he believes.

Much Irish farmland is given over to grass for grazing livestock. 

However, globally, the market share of pollinated crops is rising. 

In Ireland within the last 10 years the commercial value of soft fruit, vegetables and apple production has increased by 24%.

Kim McCall walks among his Aubrac herd of cows, a mountain breed that thrives on a diverse multi-species sward, on his farm in Calverstown, Kilcullen, Co Kildare. Picture: michaelorourkephotography.ie
Kim McCall walks among his Aubrac herd of cows, a mountain breed that thrives on a diverse multi-species sward, on his farm in Calverstown, Kilcullen, Co Kildare. Picture: michaelorourkephotography.ie

Úna Fitzpatrick is a senior ecologist at the National Biodiversity Data Centre in Waterford, and the co-ordinator of the All-Ireland Pollinator Plan. 

She says this change in land use is just one of many reasons to farm in a pollinator-aware way.

“You meet the odd farmer who says, ‘I’m dairy, why would I care about bees?’ But by protecting pollinators on your land, even if you don’t think you need them at the minute, you’re protecting how your land can be used for future generations. 

"If your children or your children’s children want to switch land use and farm in a different way that’s more productive for them. It’s allowing them the option to do that.”

Dr Fitzpatrick says farmers’ role in protecting pollinators is vital. “It’s the area of land they have responsibility for and the scope they have to positively impact things. 

"The success of the plan, in many ways, depends on how much we can engage with that sector.”

While Dr Fitzpatrick accepts current subsidies and supports through CAP put pressure on farmers to farm for yield instead of ecology, she hopes CAP reform will start rewarding farmers for greening measures. 

In the meantime, she says, every little helps to create a buzz around protecting pollinators.

“There are things that any farmer can do that won’t impact on productivity. A lot is just about getting the word out: the response is really positive on the ground when you engage with farmers and explain what they’re being asked to do and why,” she says.

How taking action helps

Taking actions to support bees on your farm will benefit you by:

  • Reinforcing Ireland’s vital green image in premium markets;
  • Contributing towards Bord Bía’s Sustainability Criteria, a component of their Quality Assurance schemes;
  • Maximising production value via increased yields of crops;
  • Saving time and money in many instances;
  • Providing additional benefits such as improving natural pest control or protecting watercourses by creating pesticides/fertiliser buffer zones;
  • Keeping farming options open for your children and their children’s children;
  • The value of many pollinator-dependent crops has increased by approximately 20% just in the past decade. Given our changing climate and the volatility in global markets it is hard to predict the most profitable way for future generations to farm. In the future, pollination services may be even more important to how your land is farmed;
  • Maintaining a healthy and sustainable farm ecosystem and ensuring your land remains in as good, or better, a natural state as when you got it.

Importance of hedgerows

Benefits to your farm of bee-friendly hedgerow management:

  • Maintaining good native hedgerows supports our green image in international markets;
  • Hedgerows provide animals with both shelter from freezing winds in winter and shade during the summer months. This can help mitigate against stress-related illnesses (milk fever, grass tetany, mastitis, heat stroke, and photosensitisation);
  • Hedgerows provide a drainage mechanism, helping to soak up excess water on the land. A reduction in surface water in paddocks helps reduce animal diseases and the organisms that cause disease such as liver fluke;
  • Hedgerows act as a physical barrier to the movement of animals, which can decrease the spread of disease through animal-to-animal contact;
  • Using hedgerows to slow winds and reduce excess soil moisture can increase grass growth to further enhance grazing quality and quantity;
  • Hedgerows provide a habitat for beneficial insects that help with natural pest control;
  • Hedgerows provide privacy and can abate smell/noise pollution.

Vital to return to farms that are rich in species

By Úna Fitzpatrick

The farms of our parents and the generations before them were very pollinator-friendly because they were naturally flower-rich.

There were hay meadows, annual flowers in cereal crops, more wildflowers along lanes and in field corners due to less widespread spraying, more flowers in hedgerows due to less mechanisation, and we grew more of our own fruits and vegetables.

In the past 50 years, advances in farming have reduced the number of flowers and it is inevitable that we now have fewer bees and other insects that rely on such flowers for food.

It would be naive to assume that we should return to how things were, but equally, it would be foolish not to work out how to achieve a new balance so that pollinators can continue to exist in our modern farmed landscape.

Pollinating insects are important to the livelihood of farmers and growers who rely on their ‘free’ pollination service, which allows consumers to buy Irish fruit and vegetables at an affordable price.

The amount of those crops grown continues to increase, making it all the more important to protect that ability for future generations of farmers. 

Not only do pollinators contribute to the economy directly through crop pollination, they also contribute to our landscape and our ‘green’ image that is so vital to marketing our agricultural produce abroad.

About 78% of our wild plants benefit from insect pollination, so without healthy populations of wild bees, the landscape would be a much different, less beautiful, place. 

This indirect value of pollinators to branding Irish products and to our agricultural export business is enormous.

In 2015, Ireland became one of the first countries in Europe to develop a strategy to address pollinator declines and protect pollination services. 

The All-Ireland Pollinator Plan is a ground-up initiative that was developed voluntarily by a 16-member steering group.

Its implementation is co-ordinated by the National Biodiversity Data Centre and it is endorsed by more than 90 governmental and non-governmental partner organisations which share responsibility for delivery of the plan’s 81 actions. 

The plan has five objectives, but, at its core, it’s about looking at our whole landscape — farmland, public land, and private land — and trying to make it a place where pollinators can survive and thrive. It is a call to action.

Pollinators and other biodiversity can be returned to all Irish farmland without impacting productivity, but it requires many farmers to take small actions.

One of the main reasons for pollinator declines is hunger. There are simply not enough flowers on farms to provide food for bees.

Bees rely entirely on nectar and pollen for food, which makes them our most important insect pollinators. 

A lack of safe nest sites, use of insecticides and herbicides, and climate change also negatively impact bee survival.

While bee numbers are declining, the good news is that we know what we need to do to reverse these declines, and the actions needed are very doable and will show results almost immediately.

The one action that would have the greatest impact for pollinators and other biodiversity on farmland is to retain native hedgerows and manage them so that they flower in spring to provide food for pollinators.

This means not cutting or flailing annually into a neat box shape but instead cutting on a three-yearly cycle and allowing them to grow in more of a A-shape.

Good hedgerows also provide shelter for nesting and overwintering, and act as corridors that help pollinators and other wildlife move through the landscape.

While we know what to do, the challenge remains that we need to create mechanisms by which farmers can be realistically encouraged to take these simple actions.

Most farmers have a deep knowledge of nature and their love of the land is tied into the plants, birds, insects, and mammals that coexist there.

They have an instinctive awareness that nature is declining from their farms, and they want to take actions that will work.

Farmers might not agree on much, but most want to ensure their land remains in as good, or better, a natural state as when they got it.

If you don’t know when you are doing harm, there is no incentive to change. We need to better engage with farmers so that they understand that there are simple actions they can take that will help.

Pollinators have been around since dinosaurs. We all have a responsibility to not be the generation that squanders this vital resource.

Dr Úna Fitzpatrick is a co-founder and project co-ordinator of the All-Ireland Pollinator Plan

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