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Hill farmers and activists clash over calls to remove sheep from the mountains

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Colm O'Donnell, of the INHFA chairman at a previous protest in Castlebar, Co Mayo. Photo: Michael McLaughlin

Colm O'Donnell, of the INHFA chairman at a previous protest in Castlebar, Co Mayo. Photo: Michael McLaughlin

INHFA President Colm O'Donnell. Photo Brian Farrell

INHFA President Colm O'Donnell. Photo Brian Farrell

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Colm O'Donnell, of the INHFA chairman at a previous protest in Castlebar, Co Mayo. Photo: Michael McLaughlin

Calls by the Irish Wildlife Trust (IWT) for the removal of livestock from commonages on the Nephin Mountains and Owenduff areas of north Mayo have sparked a furious row between environmentalists and farmers.

The environmental body said overgrazing of protected lands had been identified as a major problem in these areas and had contributed to a collapse in golden plover numbers.

"Emergency measures are now required after decades of 'conservation' failure. Grazing livestock must be removed from these peatlands and active restoration measures initiated," the IWT stated.

Citing a recent National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) study of Nephin and Owenduff, IWT claimed that 97pc of the vegetation in some areas was assessed as damaged by grazing, while the golden plover numbers had fallen by 37.5pc in 13 years.

However, the Irish Natura And Hill Farmers Association (INHFA) rejected any suggestion that farmers were to blame for the difficulties highlighted by the study.

Peatlands

INHFA president, Colm O'Donnell, pointed out that sheep numbers on these hills and peatlands have been significantly reduced over the last 20 years as a result of destocking.

Mr O'Donnell claimed that any deterioration in the quality of protected habitats was due to the NPWS's failure to put management plans in place for these sites.

"If the IWT and other environmentalists need to blame someone for the regression outlined by the NPWS then they should focus their ire on the NPWS because it is the NPWS who didn't, and still haven't, put any management plans in place for these sites," Mr O'Donnell said.

"It was the role of the NPWS to work with farmers and provide them with advice based on scientific fact.

"It was also the duty of the NPWS as a state body to ensure farmers were not at a financial loss as they worked through the burden of their restrictions.

"They did none of this and still get a free pass while the IWT and others dump on farmers - is it any wonder we are at boiling point," the INHFA leader stated.

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