Farm Ireland

Monday 19 March 2018

Farmers paid €10m to protect harriers

ENDANGERED: Hen harrier numbers are continuing to decline. PA photo: RSPB
ENDANGERED: Hen harrier numbers are continuing to decline. PA photo: RSPB
Mark O'Regan

Mark O'Regan

It's costing €2,600 to save each of just over 300 hen harriers in Ireland today - yet still the endangered raptor continues its rapid population decline.

Hen harriers, known as "sky dancers" for their elaborate aerial displays, are regarded as a vital part of our natural heritage.

Conservationists also stress they are a valuable barometer species to gauge the health of our countryside.

But latest figures show there are only between 108 and 157 breeding pairs left in Ireland - a decline of 8.7pc since 2010.

However, their presence is proving a financial boon for a select group of Irish farmers.

They are sharing a special €10m environmental package, according to Freedom of Information figures secured by the Sunday Independent.

Each year, 377 farmers in nine counties agree to implement a sophisticated conservation plan, including the creation of special hedgerows and 'small mammal' areas, which allow the birds of prey to breed and roam in safety.

Special Protected Areas (SPAs) are operating in Clare, Cork, Galway, Kerry, Laois, Limerick, Monaghan, Offaly, and Tipperary.

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The locations include some of the most idyllic parts of the country, including the Slieve Bloom mountains in Laois and Offaly, and the Slieve Aughty range spread over parts of Galway and Clare.

But despite the huge financial investment made to stem the harriers' decline, numbers continue to plummet.

In SPAs, numbers are down 26.6pc since 2005. Figures reveal over €826,600 was paid out to farmers last year for taking measures to protect the endangered birds.

A farmer in Tipperary received the largest payment of €14,594.

Overall, farmers in Co Clare collectively received the largest windfall for their conservation efforts over the past five years - with some €2,704,000 in payments to land owners.

The corresponding figure for the Limerick area was €2,325,900. Next in line were land owners in Kerry, who were allocated €1,684,500.

In total, over €10.4m has been paid to farmers over the five-year period. Farmers can apply for compensation if land is designated a Special Area of Conservation (SAC), a Natural Heritage Area, or SPAs, to protect plants or wildlife, breeding grounds or globally important sites.

Payments are based on the potential productivity of the land and decisions can be appealed to independent arbitration. Experts believe the decline of hen harriers may be linked with non-availability of their preferred habitat, and lack of suitable food.

Dr Allan Mee, from the Irish Raptor Study Group (IRSG), said that a scientifically robust action plan was needed to help protect this endangered bird species.

"Some of the biggest declines have been within the special protection areas. Wind farms are now in hen harrier breading areas which is seriously effecting the population," he added.

A recent survey carried out jointly by the Golden Eagle Trust, the IRSG, and BirdWatch Ireland revealed Ireland's hen-harrier population has declined by 33.5pc since 2000.

Burning of moorland hinders the birds, because they breed in open, upland habitats, feeding on small birds and mammals.

Sunday Independent