Stephen Cadogan: Farmers must get on board the All-Ireland Pollinator Plan

With one third of our 98 bee species threatened with extinction, the “bee-loud glade” described by William Butler Yeats is no more, and it’s time to act.

Making Ireland a place where pollinators can survive and thrive is the commendable aim of 68 organisations which have agreed a plan of action.

Without pollinators, the Irish landscape would be a very different and much less beautiful place.

The All-Ireland Pollinator Plan agreement to deliver 81 pollinator-friendly actions makes us one of the first in Europe with a strategy of this kind. 

Responsibility for the 81 actions has been shared out between the supporting organisations, which include the Department of Agriculture, Food & the Marine; Teagasc; Bord Bía; the Heritage Council; Fáilte Ireland; An Taisce Green Schools; the Federation of Irish Beekeepers’ Associations; Iarnród Éireann; Tidy Towns; and Waterways Ireland — and in Northern Ireland, the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development; the NI Environment Agency; the National Trust; the RSPB; Transport NI, Ulster Farmers’ Union, and Ulster Wildlife.

Farmers must get on board; so far, the Ulster Farmers’ Union, the Irish Organic Farmers and Growers Association, and the Irish Soft Fruit Growers are signed up.

Irish farmers already play a major role, as custodians of 300,000 km of hedges. Well-managed hedgerows are vital for maintaining pollinators, particularly within intensively managed farmland.

Helping to restore pollinators would be a great feather in the cap of Irish farming, already committed as it is to sustainability under headings such as traceability, quality, food security, water use, animal welfare and grazing management.

Bringing back the lost bees could count for more among consumers of Irish food than the 90,000 carbon footprint tests carried out per year, and should be at the heart of the Origin Green programme to make Ireland a world leader in sustainable production.

We also have farmers who depend on pollinators. When pollen is moved within flowers or from flower to flower by pollinators, it leads to fertilisation, and successful seed and fruit production. Our pollinator-dependent crops include soft fruit, vegetables, and apples – each of which is increasing in acreage.

The annual value of pollinators for human food crops has been estimated at about €53 million in the Republic. Pollinators also play a valuable role in clovers; and hoverfly pollinators protect winter wheat from pests.

Bees are declining because we have drastically reduced the areas where they can nest, and the food our landscape provides for them. Our tendency to tidy up rather than allow wildflowers along roadsides, farm field margins, and in parks and gardens is starving pollinators.

How can farmers help? They can increase the acres farmed in a pollinator-friendly way, create a network of meadows and other flower-rich habitats, adopt sustainable use of agricultural pesticides, and maintain good quality flowering hedgerows.

That could mean more wildflowers along lanes, in field margins and corners, buffer strips; planting nectar-rich and pollen-rich trees and shrubs such as willow, hazel, hawthorn, blackthorn, and fruit trees; and allowing tussocky grass, nettles, bare ground and banks, where bees can nest.

Reduced use of chemical insecticides in the countryside, towns and villages is part of the Pollinator Plan, along with creating pollinator highways along transport routes, making public parks pollinator-friendly, and encouraging the public to see their gardens as pit-stops for bees.

Clover can play a special role; with our farms 80% grassland, it can save farmers money on fertilisers because it extracts nitrogen from the air. And permanent pasture with clovers can support over 6.5 times as many bumblebees as other grasses.

Urban gardeners can also be more pollinator-friendly, for example by avoiding bedding plants and annuals which are not rich in pollen or nectar. 

The All-Ireland Pollinator Plan is also about raising awareness, so that everyone, schoolchildren to farmers, gardeners, local authorities and businesses, knows what pollinators need and which simple actions they can take to help.


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