Little-known NPWS scheme rewards a range of on-farm measures to ‘create little lighthouses for nature’, such as hedge-planting, pond-digging and putting up bird boxes
Walking out into a field of wildflowers and knee-high grass isn’t a typical experience on a dairy farm, but it’s how Michael Keane always managed his Limerick land.
The only difference is that now Michael is getting paid for it under the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) farm plan scheme.
“There was a time when advisors would rubbish what we had here and tell us to reseed with ryegrass,” Michael tells a group of farmers visiting his farm.
“Now we’re being rewarded for it and we have species of grass and fauna here that usually only ever appear over in the Burren in Co Clare.”
The farm plan scheme has been running since 2006, and Barry O’Donoghue, head of agri-ecology at the NPWS, told the farmers that the aim was to tailor a plan that suited individual farms.
“The scheme is completely farmer-led and payments are results-based,” Barry said.
“An advisor might suggest certain measures that a farmer could do but really we want the farmer to come up with ideas or projects that suit their individual farm.
“We want to help farmers create little lighthouses for nature across the country.”
Farms can take on a range of measures from grazing management plans, to planting new hedgerows, to building ponds and erecting bird boxes for specific bird breeds in an area, such as swifts, owls or kestrels.
Farmers can also choose which fields to undertake measures in.
The scheme contracts run for five years and the maximum payment is €10,000 per farmer per year.
While plans have a focus on special areas of conservation and certain endangered wildlife, there is a NPWS farm plan in every county in the country.
Due to funding limitations, and just 100 farmers a year are accepted onto the scheme. And as the NPWS is under the aegis of the Department of Housing, not the Department of Agriculture, few farmers are familiar with it.
There is a drawback for some farmers as well, as the scheme is hit with a double funding rule. For example, farmers in GLAS availing of low-input permanent pasture would not be paid a second time for land in a low-input grazing plan under the NPWS farm plan.
Barry hails from a farm in Kerry and is acutely aware of many challenges facing farmers on the ground.
He encourages communication between groups of farmers in the scheme, and WhatsApp groups have been formed to share advice on everything from pond digging to otter holt building, with one group clubbing together to buy native hedging.
A sense of meitheal and community pervades the farm walk, with talk switching back and forth from silage making to seed saving.
“When you’re together, you can see that you’re part of a bigger picture and there are a lot of farmers out there that are looking to manage for nature and support biodiversity, so you then feel that you’re not just on your own little patch, but contributing to a wider movement,” Barry said.
Barry is keen to show farmers what practices receive good scores and the logic behind the grading out of 10.
While there has been a lot of talk in the media about rewilding, the focus of the NPWS farm plan is to provide a balance between nature and farming, where both sides benefit.
As part of the farm walk, Maria Long, a grassland ecologist with the NPWS, has come to score Michael and his brother Tom’s fields — Tom is also in the plan and his farm runs alongside his brother’s.
“There might be some people out there who think that people who are into nature conservation want farmers to stop farming,” Maria said.
“That’s absolutely not the case — I’d be out of business as a grassland ecologist! We absolutely need farmers on the land farming, and it needs to make sense for them, so it’s just about choosing what’s appropriate in terms of grassland management.
“The beauty of the farm plan scheme is that it’s so bespoke. We ask farmers what constraints might be on them — for example if they’re older or might not have stock.
“It’s about problem-solving on an individual level and then doing our best to help farmers improve habitats.”
Maria and Barry go through the grading of fields on both farms. Tom had a number of sick calves so had to sacrifice a field close to the house to keep an eye on them.
While this results in a lower score, the NPWS team are keen to discuss the issue with Tom, and other farmers in the group are keen to help him, resulting in a brainstorm session for grazing rotations in early spring.
Barry hopes that the approach of the scheme could be grown in the future.
“There have been a lot of calls for the scheme to be expanded,” he said.
“That’s something our Department is supportive of, because the scheme has been seen as a success for delivering for nature.
“We’ve seen that we need a strong advisory support system and bespoke plans for farmers.
“Sometimes a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work and farmers know that each field is different, with its own issues and solutions.
“We’re going to keep trying to ensure we can provide that for them.”
Mossie Lawlor, Banna, Co Kerry
Land abandonment was a big issue for Mossie when he came home to take on the family farm.
His NPWS farm plan balances grazing management by livestock in a special area of conservation near a lake, ensuring that the land is neither under- or over-grazed.
Barry O’Donoghue from the NPWS says that this form of grazing is vital to ensure that light reaches plants on the ground, so the species-rich plant life has the opportunity to flourish.
Mossie also has some high-quality arable land where the plan is to put in a number of small-scale ponds and native hedgerows.
Michael and Tom Keane, Aughinish, Co Limerick
Brothers Michael and Tom farm in a species-rich area on the Shannon Estuary. Many of the species visible in their traditional hay meadows and across their fields are found in the Burren in Co Clare.
Michael has one side of the farm where he milks a herd of organic dairy cows, and Tom has sucklers and sheep on the other side.
On top of managing the grassland, the pair are also committed to the restoration of the native Irish Droimeann cattle herd.
Niall Fitzgerald, Ballybunion, Co Kerry
Niall is working on restoring nature to five acres that have been very intensively farmed and heavily ploughed over the years.
He has put in a mix of habitats, from wild meadows to ponds, wild bird cover and a woodland strip.
He has a real passion for local seed conservation — he propagates the seed of wild flowers and plants he finds in native Irish hedgerows, and plants them on his own land.
Barry from the NPWS says that the difference the work Niall is undertaking can already be seen in the short time he’s been in the scheme.
Brendan Lawlor, Beal, Co Kerry
Farming by the sea comes with certain challenges, and for Brendan that is managing coastal grassland dunes.
He is using traditional winter grazing methods to manage the grass on the dunes.
Barry says this clears out the dry “thatch”-style grass over-winter, and the cattle on Brendan’s farm are thriving thanks to the mix of herbs and grasses.
The cattle are taken off in spring and place is left to nature.
Because the old grass has been cleared, light can hit the ground and encourage fresh vegetation to grow. Barry says that as a result, the skylarks in the area are “booming”.