Our role as archaeological custodians

FARMERS as custodians of the countryside play an invaluable role in protecting and maintaining our natural and built heritage.

That view is particularly important at this time of the year when farmers tend to focus on repairing machinery, restoring fences and repairing farm buildings.

It is important work but much of it is also crucial from a heritage viewpoint. The message from the Heritage Council of Ireland that farming is about more than food production is, therefore, an apt one. Many of Ireland’s 120,000 known archaeological monuments are found for instance in the countryside. Only a small number are in state care or ownership.

The remaining sites are protected under the National Monuments Acts but the care and preservation of these features depends upon the interest and co-operation of each landowner. Archaeological sites are just one important element of the historic landscape which has been handed down to us from past generations.

Other elements include homesteads and settlements, field boundaries and field patterns. Indeed, the whole of the Irish landscape can be seen as historic. Human activity in the form of farming, transport, quarrying and settlement has shaped its development for centuries.

Modern farmers are the direct successors to the generations who worked and lived on the land in previous times. Archaeological monuments such as moated sites and ring forts are the former homesteads of previous farming communities.

Farming, according to the Heritage Council, has been a vital force in developing our heritage and modern non-intrusive farming practices continue to preserve and shape our historic landscapes.

“This valuable legacy is something we should try to understand, cherish and protect for ourselves and for future generations,” it says.

It was encouraging, therefore, to see the Heritage Council and the Irish Georgian Society team up for this year’s national ploughing championship where they presented a three day exhibition.

The purpose was to demonstrate to farmers’ best conservation practice and give them accurate advice on traditional building and conservation skills relevant to historic properties.

Skills demonstrated included stone-cutting, wood-carving, timber sash window restoration, ironwork conservation, decorative plaster work, pole lathe turning, lime-slaking, slate dressing, thatching and the building of traditional stone walls.

The Heritage Council, reflecting on the ongoing work and changing role of farmers around the country, said its presence at the event over the past three years has proved very successful in building strong links with the agricultural community.

It is concerned, however, that current lifestyles are severely damaging biodiversity, which it describes as a natural infrastructure that should be considered as our most essential service provider.

That’s because it provides and maintains the air we breathe, gives us water and helps keep it safe to drink, keeps our soil fertile and pollinates crops.

It also gives us food, medicines and building materials, controls flooding, provides us the raw materials essential for farming, forestry and fisheries and gives us the landscape that makes us feel like we’re home. Yet, a recent European barometer survey found that the level of awareness about biodiversity is lower than average in Ireland compared with most EU countries.

Over half (51%) of a representative sample of 1,000 Irish adults surveyed said they have never heard of it and over half (26%) of the people who have heard of biodiversity do not know what it means.

A total of 73% said they do not feel well-informed about biodiversity loss and 27% say they make no effort to halt biodiversity loss because they do not know what to do.

However, the most startling result is that most respondents in Ireland and Europe see biodiversity loss as the problem at a global level rather than at a local level.

This shows perhaps that many of us don’t understand or appreciate the link between biodiversity and our everyday lives. Hopefully, that will change with an increased focus on the need to appreciate and protect the historic landscape that has been handed down to us by previous generations.

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