Farming in a protected landscape

THE preservation of the Burren in Co Clare, one of the most important landscapes in Europe with a wealth of natural and cultural heritage, will be discussed at a three-day international conference in Ennistymon at the end of this month.

BurrenLife Project (BLP) has been working for the past four years in partnership with the Irish Farmers Association (IFA), Teagasc and the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) towards developing a new model for sustainable agriculture in the limestone region.

Much of the Burren is designated as Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) under the European Union Habitats Directive and forms part of the Natura 2000 Network. These areas contain a variety of habitats, including limestone pavements, grasslands, limestone heaths and hazel scrub.

BLP’s objective is to develop a new model for sustainable agriculture in the Burren in order to conserve the designated habitats. Monuments testify the Burren has a history of human habitation stretching back at least 5,000 years. Designated as Ireland’s fifth national park in 1991, its vegetation is the result of human influence.

Prior to the introduction of agriculture by Neolithic people, woodland was widespread over the area, but ongoing human occupation gave rise to open vegetation.

Traditional grazing helps to maintain the rich flora. As might be expected in a national park, the Burren also contains many species of animals, including seven types of bats, not to mention hares, foxes, pygmy shrews, stoats and pine martens.

It is also home to a herd of feral goats. Eighty-four species of birds have been recorded there. Peregrine falcons and hen harriers are regular visitors, but the raven is the more commonly sighted.

The Burren is probably most famous for its flowers — three-quarters of all of Ireland’s native flowers are found here, including most of the Irish orchid species. In turn, these flowers support a large number of insects, such as butterflies and moths.

Monuments, including ancient tombs, stone forts, church ruins, standing stones, crosses and other artefacts speckle the landscape.

Most of what is valued in the Burren has been shaped by the elements and by thousands of years of farming activity. However, many farmers have left the land.

The lack of both farm labour and time for cattle herding, with more and more farmers working off-farm, has resulted in degradation of habitats through changes in grazing levels, expansion of scrub, land abandonment and the loss of important land management practices.

An important step in developing a model for sustainable agriculture in the country’s flagship heritage landscape will be taken, however, at a three-day international conference to be held at the Falls Hotel, Ennistymon on February 24-27.

Environment Minister John Gormley and Teagasc Director Professor Gerry Boyle will be among speakers from Ireland and other European countries who will address the conference on the theme of Farming for Conservation — Supporting the Future.

Case studies will be presented from other limestone regions across Europe, including the Alvars of Sweden, the Causse in France and the Yorkshire Dales in Britain.

Minister of State Tony Killeen said the landscape and flora which can be seen in the Burren are the result of thousands of years of farming and human activity where man has lived and worked in close partnership with nature.

This has resulted in a unique landscape with a rich flora and fauna and a remarkable archaeological heritage.

“In recent times, however, modern farming practices have led increasingly to abandonment of the land, and this has had adverse consequences for nature conservation and the preservation of archaeological monuments.

“Increasingly, grazing by livestock is declining as farming practices change, resulting in a growing problem of encroachment by scrub on the landscape.

“This results in a loss of the biodiversity of plant and animal life, including some of the rare flora for which the area is renowned, and also obscures and damages the many archaeological monuments,” he said..

BLP manager Dr Brendan Dunford said the Burren is Ireland’s flagship heritage landscape, and that there is a moral and legal obligation on everybody to do whatever is necessary to protect it for future generations.

He said the strong support of the local farming community to date for this work would have to be matched by the commitment and resources of the relevant authorities in years to come.

Dr Dunford said this is a defining moment for the Burren. Decisions, which have to be made, will determine whether it will be managed and developed for the benefit of all, or whether this special resource is allowed to be squandered.

He also claimed that the Burren was leading the way in terms of farming for conservation in Ireland, and stated that the partnerships built up between farmers and conservationists in the region offered real solutions to the management needs of other areas of high nature value farmland in Ireland.

Dr John Cross, senior conservation scientist, National Parks and Wildlife Service, said the BLP is the first major co-operative venture between the NPWS and farming organisations to manage such a large area for conservation.

He said the NPWS viewed the BLP as a model or blueprint for future partnership with farmers in Special Areas of Conservation (SACs), designated under the EU Habitats Directive, and other areas of high nature value.

Farming should provide an economic return for the farmer while at the same time maintaining the exceptional scientific interest of the region.

Dr Cross said the ecological and socio-economic survey work being undertaken by the BLP has provided an excellent baseline for monitoring the changes in land-use which are being introduced, including the introduction of new grazing regimes and new formulated feed.

He noted that the NPWS is looking forward with great anticipation to the upcoming international conference which will help map the future for farming for conservation in Ireland.

IFA chief executive Michael Berkery said there was widespread interest and support among Burren farmers in the valuable work being done by BLP.

He noted the role of the local IFA in setting up and supporting the Burren Farmers for Conservation Group.

Mr Berkery also congratulated those involved in a Beef and Lamb Producers Group which for the first time sees Burren farmers taking ownership of the branding their own produce.

He urged all farmers with an interest in conservation and the environment to attend the upcoming conference.

Teagasc chairman Dr Tom O’Dwyer said it is committed to sustainable agricultural development in high nature value farmland areas.

“A major part of this commitment is our involvement in the BLP which is piloting conservation farming methods in the Burren, one of the country’s most important high nature value farmland areas,” he said.

Dr O’Dwyer said Teagasc views the BLP as a blueprint for conservation farming in similar areas throughout the country.

Such farming has the potential to increase farm incomes through the development of premium products, such as conservation grade Burren beef and lamb and through rural employment on conservation schemes.

Dr O’Dwyer said the forthcoming conference is recognised within Teagasc as an important step in the development and support of conservation farming methods in Ireland and across Europe.

Ruairí Ó Conchúir, BLP finance and operations officer, said the event will bring together a range of stakeholders and international experts.

“They will explore the model of farming for conservation and will provide an opportunity to discuss the future for farming in the Burren and the potential for the development of farming for conservation on a wider scale, he said.

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