Farm Ireland

Saturday 22 October 2016

A priceless heritage - conservation on the Aran Islands

Over 1,000 hectares of land on the Aran Islands is being regenerated by a project linking conservation with traditional farming methods

Declan O'Brien

Published 13/01/2016 | 02:30

Regeneration is taking place on over 1,000 hectares of land on the Aran Islands.
Regeneration is taking place on over 1,000 hectares of land on the Aran Islands.
Orchid landscape Aran Islands
Visit To Aran Islands: A bullock being taken to the "Dun Aengus" from Inishleer. (Part of the NPA/Independent Collection)

When conservationists for the Millennium Seed Bank at the famous Kew Gardens in London went searching for seeds from the arable weed called darnel their quest took them to the Aran Islands.

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A variety of the weed - known as raibhleis in Irish - is found in rye crops on the islands, although it is extremely rare in the rest of Ireland and Britain.

This story is of little significance to most people, but for scientists it serves to highlight the importance of the Aran Islands as a vital genetic reservoir for the country and, indeed, for Europe.

Preserving this rich genetic diversity is now the cornerstone of an innovative programme on the islands which links landscape conservation with traditional farming practices.

AranLIFE was launched 2014 and involves 70 locals farming more than 1,000 hectares across the three islands of Inis Oirr, Inis Meáin and Inis Mór.

The project is committed to maintaining and restoring farmland habitats such as the limestone pavement, orchid rich grasslands and machair - the sand-based grazing grounds which skirt the islands' beaches.

Farmer input is central to the design and implementation of the project, says Dr Patrick McGurn, the Fermanagh-born programme director.

"Harvesting the farmers' knowledge and experience is an essential part of AranLIFE," Dr McGurn insists.

He points out that while farmers are paid for their involvement, a key element of the scheme is encouraging participants to buy into the ethos which underpins it.

As things worked out, securing farmer 'buy in' was never a real concern as around half of the 200 registered farmers on the islands expressed interest in joining the scheme.

Seventy of these were successful and Dr McGurn and his colleague Dr Amanda Browne set about digitally mapping the farms and drawing up a plan for each holding. The immediate objectives were to:

• Improve access to land parcels by clearing boreens;

• Clear scrub and bracken from fields;

• Provide access to water for stock;

• Assess nutrient deficiency of grasslands;

• Profile the grazing potential of fields.

Payments to farmers are based on agreed works carried out as per their plan. Once these actions are completed, the team then monitor the impact on the bio-diversity of the holding.

Growth of scrub on boreens and narrow paths has restricted access to ground in many parts of the islands and has led to land abandonment in some instances as farmers gave up grazing small isolated fields that were effectively cut off.

Hard graft

The hard graft of clearing the boreens and fields is undertaken by the farmers themselves and they are paid for tasks carried out under their farm plan.

In this sense AranLIFE closely resembles the BurrenLIFE project of nearby north Clare. However, unlike the Burren, most of the scrub growth on the islands is caused by briars rather than willow.

While farmers in the past would have used a slash hook to tackle the unwelcome growth, Inis Mór farmer Gearóid Ó Flaithearta says a strimmer does the job perfectly.

"It's faster going with the times. You can't beat the technology," he explains.

"This is the time of year that you clear the briars. It must be done before March when the birds start nesting."

The briars are cut, then stacked and burned. The process is then repeated the following year and maybe one other to finally clear the ground.

"You might have to cut the briars a second and third year but they won't be as strong as the first time," Gearóid says.

Gearóid carries five suckler cows and weanlings on his 40ac holding at Gort na gCapall and he sees great benefits from the programme.

"It's an improvement to the land and that is the main interest to me. A lot of places have been opened up where cattle weren't for years."

Building water storage troughs has also enabled farmers to stock fields that were previously abandoned.

Gearóid has built two troughs on outlying parcels of land, which wasn't easy as the materials had to be carried to both sites by pony as the boreens were too narrow for a tractor.

Tomás Ó Fátharta from Kilronan on Inis Mór is another farmer who appreciates the benefits of the programme.

He usually carries seven or eight sucklers, their calves and a bull but clearing fields has enabled Tomás to buy in five more weanlings this year.

Other measures have also helped. The provision of a weighing scales allows farmers to establish the exact weight of wealings prior to their sale in autumn.

"You know exactly what you have," Tomás says.

Similarly, the use of seaweed as an organic fertiliser on fields has been revived. "It's a great fertiliser, all organic, and you see the impact of it on the fields where it is used," Tomás maintains.

However, maintaining the islands' biodiversity is essential if the €2m funding for AranLIFE - 75pc of which is provided by the EU - is to be retained.

Patrick McGurn says the riches of Aran's grasslands should not be underestimated.

He points out that while typical mixed grasslands in intensively farmed areas of the country have around five different plant species per square metre, Aran's grassland's could have 40 different plants growing in the same area.

"Sixty percent of the plants of Ireland can be found on the Aran Islands, and there are some that are unique to here. It is this biodiversity that we need to keep."

Stock exchange in choppy waters

il aran cattle.jpg  

While cattle had to swim out to cargo vessels in times past before being hoisted onto cargo ships, these days all three of the Aran Islands have excellent port facilities.

The bulk of the cattle on the islands are sucklers, with Gráinne Ní Chonghaile of AranLIFE explaining that most herds comprise three to five suckler dams. However, the largest island Inis Mór has herds of eight to 20 cows.

One of the features of farming on the islands is the out-wintering of stock. This has curtailed the growth in numbers, though Gearóid Ó Flaithearta says the cow herd on Aran has increased over the years, with farmers selling stock at a younger age.

Like most other farmers, Gearóid sells his weanlings at six to eight months of age each autumn when buyers come in from the mainland.

The photo above, from the Irish Independent archives, dates from the 1930s and shows a bullock being taken from Inis Oírr to the 'Dun Aengus' steamer.

For forty-six years, between 1921 and 1958, the Dublin-built vessel carried passengers, livestock and freight between Galway and the islands. At Kilronan on Inis Mór she was able to dock, but at the other two islands she had to off-load into currachs - a problematical operation when cattle, horses or elderly people were in question.

The first piers to be built on Inis Meáin and Inis Oírr were completed in 1997.

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