'Every farmer should have nettles on their farm to improve biodiversity'- dairy farmer and activist

Dairy farmer and leader of the BRIDE biodiversity project, Donal Sheehan from Castlelyons, Co Cork.
Dairy farmer and leader of the BRIDE biodiversity project, Donal Sheehan from Castlelyons, Co Cork.
Claire Fox

Claire Fox

Every farmer should have a bunch of nettles on their farm to increase the land’s biodiversity value, well-known dairy farmer and environment activist Donal Sheehan has said.

A UN report published this week has said that industrial farming is a major driver in one million animals and plant species are at imminent risk of humankind.

However Donal Sheehan, who runs a 70 cow dairy farm in Castlelyons, Co Cork set up the five-year BRIDE Project (Biodiversity Regeneration In a Dairying Environment) in 2018 which pays the farmers involved to make environment improvements on their farm, with the aim of setting aside at least 10pc of their farm for conservation.

He said the project pays farmers for conserving nettles as they are big drivers of biodiversity and in particular increasing butterfly life.

“Nettle patches are something that farmers throw their eyes up to heaven about when we mention them. It’s something the Department of Agriculture or Teagasc could never take on because their credibility is at stake, but our credibility was never an issue,” he told the recent IFA Smart Farming Conference.

“Nettles are a food plant for five different species of butterflies, if you’ve no nettles you won’t have five species of butterflies. This is why we need to reconnect with nature.

“We’re paying farmers to have a couple of bunches of nettles on their farm, two metres by two metres in size. Farmers need to get their heads around it, it’s as simple as that.”

Stinging nettles (Lusyaya/Getty Images)

Mr Sheehan pointed out that in the past there was a view that environment schemes were for less intensive farmers, but he said that view needs to change and that every farmer now needs to "embrace the green and not go against" it if they want to market their product as sustainable.

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“The intensive farming sector had the attitude of letting the lads work away with the birdies and that they would drive on but that has come against us because the public are looking for environmental credentials and we are struggling to catch up,” he added.

“We need to start valuing our habitats and if we go down the road of pinching the environment we’re not in the position to say to people you should buy my product.

“No matter what kind of farm you have we all have an obligation to the environment whether it’s water quality or climate change or biodiversity.

"The next generation that are coming know all about biodiversity and climate change, they’ve all had their green flags at school and they’re going to be looking for all of these things when they buy their food.”

He said the notion of having neat and tidy hedgerows needs to go, as a fuller and more vibrant hedge allows for a bigger drawn down of carbon.

The BRIDE project also promotes the retention of wetlands which are useful run off buffers and habitats and asks tillage farmers to refrain from spraying their crop with glyphosate before or after harvest and to shut the gate on the field during the winter to allow for wildlife activity to thrive.

Online Editors