Sustainability has at least three dimensions — ecological, economic and social.
It is increasingly difficult to make the sustainability case for sheep meat.
Little is produced per acre compared to other sectors, and the carbon footprint is high (even in Ireland, where we are 10th best in the EU in terms of greenhouse gas emissions).
Other activities are prevented in the uplands which could have a more positive impact, from forestry to ecotourism to perhaps even what is called re-wilding.
There is a large re-wilding project in Mayo, spread over 20 miles and 27,000 acres of the Nephin Beg mountain range.
This is what is described as a ‘self-willed’ landscape — one left to its own devices to, as it were, recuperate and replenish, with benefits for the otherwise plummeting biodiversity, carbon storage and a sort of socio-psychological enchantment that’s hard to define.
There are re-wilding projects all over Europe, from the east to places like Belgium and the Netherlands, which involve reintroduction of species from lynx to beavers, even bears and wolves.
Socially, while sheep keep people in rural areas, it can be argued that they keep other activities at bay. Economically, the sheepmeat sector is the most subsidy- dependent and poorest performing.
Organic isn’t a lot better, with 22% of organic sheepmeat being lost to the conventional sector, it has been thus for years.
As a potential salve to such problems, I have suggested agroforestry here. Other promising agro-ecological solutions are emerging too — solutions that work with biology rather than just chemistry.
An especially promising example comes from the PhD research of UCD’s Connie Grace. She has found, in what is still just the preliminary stage of her research, that developing a more complex grass sward improves the performance of sheep. She is trying out grass only; grass clover; six species; and also nine-species grazing regimes.
What she has found thus far is that the six-species sward performs the best.
Lambs finish earlier (up to 25 days earlier) when grazed on the following: perennial ryegrass and timothy (grasses) with white clover and red clover (legumes), plantain and chicory (herbs).
What’s more, of the four swards she is testing, this sward has the lowest concentrate input, at 7kg per ewe.
The grass-only sward had the heaviest nitrogen load, at 163 kg/ha. By comparison, all others involved 90 kg/ha.
The six-species sward produced the highest weaning weight, highest growth rate and best lifetime growth rates, especially outperforming the grass-only sward.
The multi-species swards also displayed a lower worm load than the grass-only trials.
This research is only in its first year, but it is very promising. In sustainability terms, there are multiple benefits to reducing the added nitrogen and in developing more complex swards.
The more varied-rooting the sward, the better the land’s water retention (good to fight flooding downstream) and soil quality (including, potentially, carbon storage). Less nitrogen fertiliser can also work better with soil carbon (mineral fertilisers have been shown to turn carbon into the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, while there are an array of other environmental negatives).
Not purchasing as much N fertiliser, while having a better performing animal, is economically more sustainable.
And socially, these sorts of practices, coupled with others such as agroforestry, could keep people on the land in a way that benefits all, from residents downstream to Ireland as a country trying to improve its GHG performance.
These ecologically-enhanced, economically savvy farming practices can make even the poorest performing sector in agri-food more sustainable.
That’s sustainable in economic, social and ecological terms.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved