Farm Ireland

Wednesday 22 November 2017

Brothers rewarded for wild ambitions

Antrim duo win environmental award for eco-friendly methods

Dan Danaher

An initiative to control predators for 200 farmers in the Glens of Antrim has played a pivotal role in helping two brothers capture a major environmental award in Northern Ireland.

Foxes, hooded crows and magpies were proving a major problem for years on the two hill farms run by John and Jim Davison at Shilnavough, Glenarm, midway between Ballyclare and Larne.

However, a targeted programme introduced by the British Association of Shooting and Conservation, and the tireless work of gamekeeper Andy Scullion, resulted in a dramatic reduction in predators on the Daviso''s holdings.

In addition, the six-year project slashed sheep losses, while facilitating a resurgence in local wildlife.

It also helped the Davisons beat off stiff competition to scoop the first prize in this year's Nature of Farming award in Northern Ireland.

This award gives official recognition to farmers who run profitable farms that are also wildlife-friendly. It is supported by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), BBC Countryfile Magazine, Butterfly Conservation and the Ulster Farmers' Union (UFU).

The brothers are regarded by the RSPB as a shining example of how upland farming can be managed for business and nature.

They are striving to increase numbers of threatened birds such as the lapwing, curlew and red grouse, while also encouraging habitats for the Irish hare.

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In total, the two farms, which support a beef and sheep mixed enterprise, extends to 350ha. Previously it was one large holding until a decision was made about 15 years ago to split it evenly and the two farms are now run as separate businesses.

For the purpose of the competition, the two farms were submitted as one entry.

While younger brother Jim was surprised with achieving this accolade, he does derive a sense of satisfaction from what has been a labour of love.

"The last thing you want is the place being turned into a museum. We are traditional sheep and cattle farmers and all the improvements we have made have been good for the farm -- and benefited the birds," Jim said.

He is disappointed that the conservation project isn't continuing as it proved very beneficial for farmers in a district extending to an estimated 40km2.


In addition to participating in the Countryside Management Scheme for the past 15 years, portions of their farm are also designated as an Environmental Sensitive Area, which also promotes environmentally friendly farming with grant aid.

RSPB volunteer and farmers' alliance officer Patsy Harbinson insists the brothers are a brilliant example of how a viable commercial farm can co-exist with a variety of wildlife-friendly initiatives.

"These two brothers have gone above and beyond the requirements of the Countryside Management Scheme and fully deserve their award," Ms Harbinson said.

The brothers stock Galloway cattle, sheep and horses, which eat vegetation considered unpalatable by other cattle, and have a reed-bed filtration system to catch the run-off from the farmyard.

Lapwing, curlew and snipe have traditionally used the hills as wintering sites -- and they still use the farm today, despite having all but disappeared from many parts of Ireland.

Other birds that are abundant on the farm are skylark, willow warbler, wheatear, swallow and house sparrows.

Raptors, or birds of prey, also thrive in the area. Buzzards are commonly heard and seen, as are kestrels, but the real rarities are hen harriers.

The Davisons are quick to point out the reason their farm has so much wildlife: they are in a "hotspot". The overall holding borders Glenwherry, an area managed for birds such as red grouse.

"We wouldn't be able to do this on our own. Everyone around us has made a difference," they insist.

The landscape also provides a range of different habitats, which are crucial to the area's biodiversity.

"We have ponds and scrapes, wet lowlands, heather uplands and improved grassland. The curlews enjoy the pond, and the hare and lapwing go into the improved grassland. This gives everything a chance to survive," said John.

The Davisons have no intention of changing their farming regime, even if it would benefit margins, as they believe wildlife is part of the farm.

It seems that no aspect of wildlife has been left out in the care they have taken with the farm; from rebuilding or maintaining their stone walls, which benefits small mammals such as field mice, to the reed beds that benefit hunting bats.

Not spreading nutrients or slurry on some land has also brought out the natural seed bank and wildflowers such as eyebright and Devil's bit scabious, which have established themselves.

Damselflies and dragonflies, darters and hawkers, also thrive in the wetland habitat.

Ringlets, meadow browns, red admirals and reals wood white are a few of the butterfy species that are found on the farm.

Irish Independent