As the fate of farmers is discussed more and more in the contexts of Brexit, Mercosur, and global warming, let’s not forget that farmers are the custodians of the countryside.
Agriculture must have a sustainable future, because farmers do not simply interact with the rural environment; they are an integral part of it.
But they must be paid for commitment and investment required to ensure that all the pieces of the rural jigsaw remain in place, including the sustainability of the countryside.
Up to now, the CAP basic payment has represented the main platform of EU support for the farming industry, not just here, but throughout the entire European Union.
Many sceptics, who do not work within the agri-sectors, sometimes refer to this income support received from Brussels as ‘money for nothing’.
But support is not the best term for the basic payment, which is made available to — among other things — ensure that the countryside is maintained to the highest standards of environmental protection and conservation.
Our Irish rural landscape is the envy of most other countries.
The proof of that is that more and more people from all walks of life want to spend more time in the Irish countryside, and enjoy the breadth and scope of its beauty.
So it is only right that all taxpayers should make a contribution to its upkeep.
Back when Simon Coveney was Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, he talked a lot about the principle of ‘sustainable intensification’, where production agriculture is concerned.
His primary objective back then was kick-starting the Harvest 2020 project, which would see the Irish dairy sector grow by 50%.
But Coveney was also mindful of the need for the farming sector in this country to expand its commitment to the environment and conservation.
So much for the background.
Now to a man who fully recognises the role which every Irish farmer can play in protecting the environment, improving water quality and maximising the conservation value of the countryside.
He is Brendan Dunford.
He currently heads up the Burren Programme in Co Clare.
The Burren takes in 720 square kilometres of north Co Clare and south Co Galway.
It is a refuge for a great many species, including 70% of Ireland’s native plants, and a repository for probably the best-preserved and diverse range of archaeological sites in Ireland.
Established with support from the EU, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (DAFM), and the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS), in 2010, the Burren Programme has garnered the support of 330 farmers, managing 23,000 hectares, who use this land as an important agricultural production resource.
But this is only part of the story.
“The programme was initiated in the wake of an extensive EU-funded research project.
“This research highlighted the conservation value of the Burren and the vital role which farmers can play in maintaining its unique habitats and archaeology” said Dunford.
“When it came to designing the programme, it was decided to take a farmer-centred, results-based approach.
“The desired outcomes are clearly explained to the farmer [species-rich grasslands, clean water etc], but it’s very much up to the farmer to decide if, and how, to deliver these outcomes.
“Farmers are rewarded on the basis of their success in delivering these outcomes and are co-funded for works [which they nominate] to help achieve them.
“It’s all about being paid for success.
“Every field in the programme is allocated an annual score which reflects its environmental condition, and farmers receive higher payments for higher scores.
“The farmers are encouraged to use their initiative, experience and hard work to improve their scores, and thus payments, but also know that they have continuous access to scientific and technical advice, should they need it”.
Restoring traditional winter grazing regimes is one of the key aims of the Burren programme.
Brendan Dunford again: “Putting suckler cows on to the Burren during the winter months helps graze back the stronger vegetation and emerging scrub which, left unhindered, can hamper the growth of the summer flowers for which the area is renowned.
“It also helps break up the pasture a little, allowing new seedlings to establish, encouraging greater biodiversity and improving the environmental score for that field.
“During summer, these cattle are moved to fertile summer pastures, allowing the species-rich winterages to recover, flower and set seed.
According to Dunford, the key management actions required to support winter grazing — and thus biodiversity — include repairing traditional stone walls, upgrading water supplies, improving supplementary feeding systems, enhancing access for livestock, and removing encroaching scrub.
By doing these things, farmers can get cattle back on to these pastures.
Farmers within the scheme are paid based on their environmental performance, plus grants to facilitate the required capital development investment.
They are currently receiving annual payments of €6,500, average.
This is on top of their GLAS monies.
“These are average payments,” Dunford stressed.
“The actual money drawn down by each farmer depends on the area of target land they farm, the environmental condition of this land, and the amount of actual work they carry out.
“Over the five-year scope of the current plan, eligible farmers can draw down a maximum of €10,000 per annum for their environmental performance, and up to €7,000 per annum for capital works required to improve this performance.
“The scheme is currently at full capacity and is working really well.
“We can clearly demonstrate the incremental improvement in the environmental health of the Burren every year since 2010 when we began work, and since when €8.5m has been invested in the local farm economy.”
Dunford is quick to suggest that the principles enshrined within the Burren programme (a farmer-centred approach; paying for performance; being adaptable and flexible) can be rolled out across most of rural Ireland. And he is positive about how the new European Innovation Partnerships (EIP) funded by DAFM are helping to achieve this.
There are 23 EIP projects around the country.
They focus variously on biodiversity, organic production, pollinators, water quality, flood management, soils, farming in an archaeological landscape, and targeting unutilised agricultural biomass.
Dunford is very mindful of the recently declared climate and biodiversity emergencies, but he is hopeful that the CAP Strategic Plan being developed by DAFM, as part of CAP reform, can play a major role in addressing these crises, while supporting farm income.
Dunford has strong opinions on how agriculture can interface directly with the need for the industry to deliver on its environmental responsibilities.
There are up to 140,000 landowners in Ireland.
According to Dunford, each farmer can and must play a key role in delivering for the country’s environment.
Enhancing biodiversity, improving water quality and sequestering more carbon can be addressed within every farming business.
“The way I see it is that delivering these ecosystem services will be a core part of farm incomes in future,” he said.
“The good news is that the Burren programme has proven that farmers can rise to this challenge, working with scientists and public authorities to make this vision a reality.”