Like BurrenLIFE, Agri-Environment Payment Scheme for the Blackstairs could be blueprint for other regionsl.

Following the success of BurrenLIFE, farmers and researchers in the Blackstairs Farming Group have launched their their plan for a similar scheme.

Like the scheme in Co Clare, it’s a plan that could see less bureaucracy for farmers, and better outcomes for nature.

Results-based schemes like this pay farmers for what is achieved, not just for filling in forms, or following a restrictive set of rules. Crucially, farmers are allowed flexibility in choosing the best way to achieve this result.

Like BurrenLIFE, the Blackstairs Group’s “Results-Based Agri-Environment Payment Scheme for the Blackstairs Mountains” could be a blueprint for other regions to adapt and develop.

There are fewer and fewer hill farmers, and their skills are being lost.

While the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy supports farmers like these, it also generates much paperwork, while not necessarily delivering required environmental targets. 

A decline in hill farming, and economic and bureaucratic challenges, complete the context of the proposed Blackstairs Scheme.

Blackstairs Mountain farmer Martin Shannon: he says hill farming is an isolated business.Picture: Annabel Konig
Blackstairs Mountain farmer Martin Shannon: he says hill farming is an isolated business. Picture: Annabel Konig

Results-based initiatives like this are emerging all over Europe. Ireland’s most developed of such initiatives is BurrenLIFE. 

Farmers on almost 13,000 hectares of the Burren landscape in Co Clare have earned almost €5m over five years for improving biodiversity, water quality, and cultural and landscape attributes. 

In BurrenLIFE, farmers on low-intensity farmland are rewarded for delivering positive impacts on a defined nature feature.

Initially, only 25 farmers were involved, but 150 are involved in the current round, called Burren Farming for Conservation Programme.

For the next round, the numbers have been upped to 500 farmers. Already in 2016, 200 farmers were accepted to be part of the Burren Programme, in the first tranche of applicants.

The Blackstairs Farming Group was formed in 2014, to try to establish a farmer-led results based scheme for Mount Leinster and the Blackstairs uplands. 

And when the 2014-2020 Rural Development Programme included support for locally-led agri-environment projects, according to the Blackstairs Farming Group, “the inclusion of the conservation and/or restoration of upland peats as a specific theme for this measure offered a particular opportunity for hill farmers in Mount Leinster and the Blackstairs.”

In April, 2015, the group were offered assistance to develop a project, from the European Forum on Nature Conservation and Pastoralism. The Heritage Council, Carlow County Council and Wexford County Council were also supportive.

Martin Shannon, a hill farmer with a suckler herd, is chair of the group.

“One of the most positive things about the group is that it has brought farmers together. Farming, especially hill farming, is an isolated business. 

"There are very few left to take care of things. If the government doesn’t pay attention to the cry from the wilderness, so to speak, things will only get worse. We need a 20-year plan for mountains and commonage.”

“Every farmer had sheep on the hill long ago, and at collection time, farmers separated them. It was a commonage flock, but that’s all gone. Farmers go on their own onto the mountain. If you get into difficulty, there is no one there.”

Colin Gallagher, Gwyn Jones and Mary Tubridy wrote up their scheme proposal to “maintain and enhance important features of biodiversity and farming systems...

“While focusing primarily on the maintenance and improvement of habitat condition, the proposed measure will incorporate support for actions on commonages which are over and above those covered by GLAS.

“By being available to land outside the commonage, managed by commonage farmers, in contrast to GLAS, it will offer support for management of a wider range of associated semi-natural habitats.”

This proposal is built around the specifics of the Blackstairs region, such as the area’s red grouse and hen harriers. 

It includes maintaining appropriate levels of grazing, implementing burning management, increasing the red grouse population, encouraging nesting hen harriers and other priority species, and ensuring that all water bodies achieve and are maintained at high ecological status.

The Blackstairs Farming Group wants to step up from the GLAS Commonage Management Plan, which they say does not include monitoring of habitat condition.

Instead, stocking rate is the only significant measure.

They also propose a sliding scale for farmers with larger landholdings, rather than a 42 hectare limit.

Similar to the Burren and other pilot projects, the proposed Blackstairs measure will have a five-point scoring system understood and implemented by farmers.

For example, a low cover of bare soil would attract a high score, whereas a high percentage of bare soil coverage would attract a very low score.

Helena Fitzgerald is co-ordinator of the Backstairs Farming Group.

“The process has been driven by farmers pointing to difficulties they see in management, and then solutions to these difficulties. 

"Research into CSO figures on the age of farmers in this region reveals a 50% reduction in number of farmers under 44 since 1991. There is a real concern about how farmers will continue, and how to make this region attractive to young farmers.”

“This Blackstairs initiative can be seen as a form of value adding. Biodiversity is a deliverable, as it is with BurrenLIFE.”

However, there’s some way to go to getting a scheme on the ground.

“Since launching the proposal, we’ve been in a holding position. With the delays in GLAS and the Commonage Framework Plans, we’re still waiting. There can’t be double payments obviously, so we have yet to know what can be supported.”

“As one farmer said, the mountain didn’t get that way without work. It takes work to manage the habitat, to manage the hill.”

Last word to Martin Shannon: “Some farmers retired after destocking. Now, they have no sheep, even if they wanted to go back. I’ve no sheep now, a lot of the sheep owners are older. It’s a lot easier to take the sheep off the mountain than to bring them back up.”


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