The Teagasc researcher says reduction in farmland biodiversity is a major global conservation challenge, a priority Ireland shares with many EU member states.
Speaking at the Teagasc Biodiversity Conference in Portlaoise, Dr Ó hUallacháin said: “Given the prominence of grasslands in Ireland, and the ‘bad’ conservation status of the majority of grassland habitats, it is not surprising addressing grassland habitat conservation measures are central in all of Ireland’s agri-environment schemes.
“Within Ireland, approximately 65% of the national land area is dedicated to agricultural production of which over 90% is pasture-based. Semi-natural grassland habitats have, however, undergone a significant decline in Ireland, mimicking the trend that has been witnessed throughout Europe.”
Dr Ó hUallacháin said AEOS and other schemes would see some farmers availing of up to €4,000 to help them preserve targeted grassland habitats.
The most popular measures under AEOS are the ‘traditional hay meadow’ and ‘species-rich grassland’ designations.
With payments to farmers of up to €314 per hectare on a maximum of hectares, a farmer could obtain most of their AEOS maximum payment of €4,000.
“One of the priority environmental goals of the CAP is to contribute to the EU goal to halt biodiversity loss and the degradation of ecosystem services by 2020,” said Dr Ó hUallacháin.
He said the environmental schemes have a vital role to play in delivering ‘environmental public goods’, the measure by which the EU assesses farm payments.
“The provision of public goods is a key justification for the allocation of public funds to agriculture,” said Dr Ó hUallacháin.
“However appropriate evaluation is necessary to satisfy EU laws, to demonstrate value-for-money to taxpayers, and to avoid accusations of trade distortion. To date, no assessment has been done of effects of grassland conservation measures on botanical diversity.”
The study presented by Dr Ó hUallacháin in Portlaoise sought to provide a baseline comparison of the botanical composition of the grassland types currently supported through the AEOS scheme.
His analysis of 60 grassland sites found considerable variation in the biodiversity benefits across the various environmental schemes.
“There is an opportunity for improved design and targeting of the THM and SRG options or a modification so payments better reflect the outcomes,” he stated. “For example, full payment would be paid for vegetation with higher nature value; lower quality vegetation would get lower payment rates.
“This would be in line with approaches developed in the Burren Farming for Conservation Programme, and would incentivise improvement in the nature value of vegetation of low and medium nature value.”