Farmers and conservationists can learn from each other
IRELAND has long been proud of its green reputation, and in few places is this more acute than in County Wicklow, the most wooded county on the island.
But the fact that Ireland now has some of the lowest tree cover in Europe is one of several stark issues that wildlife in the country must now contend with, and something that farmers in the Garden County have been working hard to address in recent decades as conservation of the environment has taken precedence.
'Every habitat, bird, mammal, frog and fish you see in Wicklow can be or is directly influenced by farmers,' says Barry O'Donoghue of the National Parks & Wildlife Service.
'Some habitats and species are entirely dependent on farming or particular types of farming. Some habitats and species would not exist in Wicklow only for farming, while others are at risk from modern farming methods.'
As far as legislative support for conservation and environmentally-friendly farming methods, the Rural Environmental Protections Scheme (REPS, which rewarded farmers for preserving biodiversity) worked wonders for the Garden County, as revealed by some astonishing figures confirming the commitment to conservation to be found amongst farmers in Wicklow. Approximately 190km of hedgerows were planted by roughly 622 farmers across Wicklow under REPS 3 and 4, as well as over 39,000 indigenous broadleaved trees and around 2,800 ha of clover-rich land.
'It was an all farm, five year programme,' Robert Sherriff of Teagasc tells the Wicklow People. 'Farmers had to do a nutrient management plan and undertake to do certain things with regards to grassland and soil management.'
However, the turnaround in Ireland's economic fortunes essentially spelt the end of the scheme, which finishes off this year. At its height, around 900 Wicklow farmers benefited from the scheme, compared to roughly 250 now. Due to financial constraints, it has since been replaced by AEOS (the Agri-Environmental Options Scheme) a less comprehensive programme that has not seen the same high levels of uptake.
'It's more of an option given scheme - the farmers select what areas [of the farm] they want to put into it,' Robert explains. 'It would have lower uptake than REPS. There has been interest particularly on the more marginal farms, but they want to get the more intensive farms into environmental schemes as well. I suppose the concern would be that because there is not the same level of impetus that maybe the improvements won't continue.'
Because of this, much now depends on the forthcoming EU scheme for 2015 - coming in under the CAP reforms - which it is hoped will further facilitate farmers in vital conservation efforts.
'It [the scheme] will be similar to mix of REPS and AEOS,' Robert explains. 'Hopefully the scheme coming in 2015 will continue to see improvements.'
If so, the conservation efforts stemming from this programme could be of great benefit both on an individual level (as farmers depend on the natural environment for their livelihood) and in terms of the local economy, which can greatly benefit from environmental preservation.
'Without clean water, stable river banks, healthy uplands, healthy soils, beetles and worms to recycle nutrients, bees to pollinate crops and so on, it would be nigh impossible to farm,' says Barry.
'When one thinks of Wicklow, images of a wild landscape, mountains, moors, rivers and lakes come to mind. If an area like the Wicklow Mountains is marketed as an environmentally friendly area this will attract visitors who will come to eat locally produced foods and stay in local hotels and B&B's, thereby giving vitality to the local economy.
'There are many examples of how farming can benefit or harm our natural environment but the key point is for those looking to maintain and enhance the environment to work with farmers on the ground so that conservationists can learn from farmers and vice versa.'