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Heritage Council Urges New Approach to Agri-Environment Programme

Wet heath blanket bog, Co Donegal

In liaison with farmers, government bodies and other interested parties the Heritage Council is proposing an agri-environment programme that will provide the most support to farmers who contribute the most in terms of wildlife. 

A lot of species rich farmland has disappeared due to the changes in agriculture over the years but now the European Union’s Rural Development Policy post 2013 is to be focused on restoring, preserving and enhancing ecosystems dependent on agricultural practice that focus on biodiversity.  

At the launch of the report A National, Outcome-based Agri-environment Programme Under Ireland’s Rural Development Programme 2014-2020 Michael Starrett said that ‘this is a real shift in how agri-environment schemes will be operated in the future and if Irish farmers are to benefit from this shift it is essential that they can demonstrate best practice in terms of managing habitats for wildlife and rare flora. The programme that we are proposing, if applied, will help Ireland meet EU Objectives in a new, innovative way that is cost effective, administratively efficient and bring benefits to biodiversity and Irish farmers alike. Farmers that deliver the most in terms of public goods such as wildlife, clean water and protecting species rich grasslands will get paid the most”. 

Future schemes the report argues need a tiered approach, offering both well designed AEOS (Agri Environment Options Scheme) type actions and an additional tier which encourages and rewards the active management of semi-natural areas. Examples drawn from across Europe show that this can be achieved through a blended model of agri-environment scheme delivery, that allows for much more flexibility to adapt to the specific habitat resulting in more targeted actions that support wildlife and biodiversity. This approach creates a market for environment service provision at farm level, rewarding farmers that deliver the most.  

“There is no market for saving a butterfly or improving water quality so farmers who have maintained the high nature value of their farm need targeted support that protects these farming methods that deliver other services for the public” said Starrett. “It is easier and more cost effective for farmers to make silage than to cut hay which is why we are losing vital species such as bees and butterflies so farmers that continue to cut hay need additional supports. Places such as Leitrim for example have a wide range of rare plant species that just one spread of fertilizer would destroy and we know from our case work what supports are needed to protect our biodiversity “. 

The European Commission has acknowledged for some time that the better targeting of agri-environment payments is necessary and the application of programmes such as the one proposed by the Heritage Council will help Ireland greatly in securing ongoing funding for its smaller farmers often working in more marginal areas.

The basis of the programme is the development of a 10 point health check scoring system which measures the environmental output and payments made per eligible field. Farmers would be encouraged to manage the land in a manner that will improve the individual field scores through advice, training and utilising the farmers own knowledge. The outcome for the programme is measured on a simple scoring model for the types of work to be undertaken for each of the habitat types namely;

-Semi natural farmed vegetation specifically heath land incorporating dry heath, wet heath and blanket bog;
-Semi natural grasslands (both wet and dry types)
-Breeding wader sites

The overall costs offer value for money in the context of the overall budget for the RDP. Whilst the proposed expenditure on agri environment programmes has yet to be confirmed, the estimated cost of Tier II in this proposal of between €63m-€127m (dependent on uptake) appears very reasonable when you consider the payments ranged from €238m - €336m in the 2007-2013 RDP.

Such an approach could result in additional targeted payments of up to €200/ha for semi-natural grassland and €100/ha for heath type vegetation, and allowances for restorative actions of up to €100/ha. Payments per farm would vary depending on farm size, percentage and quality of semi-natural vegetation. Taking an average farm size of 30ha with approximately 60% semi-natural vegetation, total agri-environmental payments (Tier I _AEOS Actions and Tier II) per farm under the proposed programme are estimated to be approximately €7,000.

In concluding the Heritage Council’s CEO stated, “that the time is opportune to take such an approach on board and the Heritage Council is urging the Department of Agriculture to do so. It has been based on the success of the Burren Life project, the Burren Farming for Conservation Programme, the HNV farmland pilot in Connemara and the Aran Islands, the BioUp research project in Kerry and the Irish Uplands Forum work in Sligo/Leitrim and south Leinster with the input of the Wicklow Uplands Council. In all these areas there is wide acceptance that such an approach can result in better farming practices that help maintain the high nature value such farming contributes for all of us”.  

It is hoped that the report and programme outline will be used by policy makers to support High Nature Value (HNV) Farming in the new Rural Development Plan. The programme was prepared on behalf of the Heritage Council by the EFNCP (European Forum for Nature Conservation and Pastoralism) and SLIGO IT.

Download the Report here [PDF 3MB]

For further information: 
Isabell Smyth, Head of Communications & Education,
The Heritage Council, 087 967 6889

Dr Patrick McGurn
European Forum on Nature Conservation and Pastoralism Portinode, Kesh, Co Fermanagh BT93 8Aq, N Ireland 00442868632116/00447901856065 patrick@efncp.org