WHEN people who grew up in the Irish countryside return after long absences to places they knew in childhood they are often quite shocked at the changes they see.
Gone are many of the ditches, hedgerows, trees and fields they had been familiar with it. Instead, there’s the spectacle of amalgamated fields, electric fences, staked paddocks and endless piles of black, plastic bales.
Trees, plants, flowers and animals that once thrived are no more — all dispensed with to make way for modern agricultural practices.
You’ll hear those returning bemoan the stench of slurry and freshly opened silage pits: at the same time, they ask whatever happened to the fragrance of wild flowers that once perfumed the country air.
Talking to people still living in such areas, terms such as “farming is finished” or “the small farmer is gone” are invariably used. And, though farming still offers a living to the bigger landowner, the small farmer, as we knew him in yesteryear, is heading the same way as the hapless dodo.
However, there are pockets where traditional farmed landscapes still survive and where farmers continue to enjoy a close relationship with the land.
You’ll find these refuges in parts of west Cork, south Kerry, west Clare, among the Wicklow hills, all along the west coast up to Donegal and on off-shore islands.
The reason the landscape in such places has changed little is that it is unsuitable for modern farming practices: the land is generally very poor, inaccessible and just not worth adapting to the needs of today’s technologies.
Farmers there that wish to maintain their working links with the land have to stick with old ways of doing things, which allow for the continued presence of plants and animals.
Perhaps, in the next generation, many more smaller farmers will simply disappear off the land. And a question that has not been given much consideration is: what impact would their departure have on the environment?
It is significant that many of the areas under threat are rich repositories of our natural and cultural heritage, with archaeological monuments et al.
EU officials are already looking to the future of such areas and “heritage management” is a concept we’ll be hearing a lot more about.
Given the controversial history of other EU-led schemes, such as Special Areas of Conservation (SAC), this is likely to set alarm bells ringing for farmers.
Farmers see such schemes as being too restrictive and too nature -centred, with not enough regard for people who live on the land.
But changes in official thinking are being clearly signalled from Brussels in the new Rural Environmental Protection Scheme (REPS). One of the aims of the new scheme is to promote the conservation of “high nature value” farmed environments which are under threat.
Key to the success of the new REPS will be the involvement of farmers in conservation, while they continue to farm, according to Brendan Dunford, who is heading a pilot project in Co Clare.
“While some would argue that REPS works to protect the environment from farming, the high nature value (HNV) approach recognises the need to promote and sustain proactive farming activity,” he said.
Mr Dunford, manager of the BurrenLIFE project, said the new approach involving the National Parks and Wildlife Service, Teagasc and the IFA was already paying dividends.
“Each of the 20 monitor farms in this pilot project has its own unique plan, one that places the heritage value of the land on a footing with its agricultural value,” he wrote in Heritage Outlook.
Rather than restricting activity, the project tries to come up with creative methods of providing food, water and access for livestock in order to maintain suitable farming systems on marginal land.
Payments are made only for work completed and the farmer is expected to cover a portion of costs involved, in all cases.
“Within BurrenLIFE, the farmer is placed firmly at the centre of the conservation process,” Mr Dunford pointed out.
Farmers themselves are contracted to do heritage work such as scrub removal, providing water and wall repair.
They also deliver talks and supervise public walks.
Many people will baulk at the idea of yet another EU-backed scheme and the bureaucracy it may entail, but if the new REPS can halt the demise of small farmers and rural heritage it will surely be worthwhile.
Mr Dunford concluded: “We may have no choice but to embrace this new way forward and hope that it can succeed where other schemes failed, in helping to sustain a vibrant Irish countryside where there is a meaningful and sustainable balance between the needs of farming and of heritage.”