Working together for the common good of the hills
Commonage farmers who may have only sat in the same room together during a funeral are now working together for the common good of the hills.
In November the Sustainable Uplands Agriculture-environment Scheme's (SUAS) pilot project was launched by the Wicklow Uplands Council with the aim of rejuvenating stock numbers and vegetation management on the hills. The project received €1.95m in funding from the Department of Agriculture under the EIP AGRI initiative.
Project manager Declan Byrne tells the Farming Independent that the project, which has 26 farmers involved, is the first of its kind in Ireland where an agricultural plan is devised for a commonage itself rather than an individual.
"This is the first time it has ever been trialled in Ireland. We had a meeting with the farmers a couple of years ago when starting off and for many it was the first time they sat together in a room that wasn't a funeral mass.
"It's not the traditional way of doing things here but it is the most logical - instead of having individual management plans, there is one for the whole commonage."
The project, set to run until 2022, aims to increase stock numbers of sheep, which have wilted in recent years, and improve vegetation management.
"Sheep used to spend up to 10 months on the commonages but now farmers have gotten more access to lowlands which are easier for them to manage the sheep," says Mr Byrne.
"Now sheep only tend to graze from July to September on the hills and only graze the grassy areas, not the heather and bracken which is quite overgrown.
"The challenge is to get them up to graze in January, February, March and April. Farmers who graze their sheep on the hills during those months will get rewarded with feeding buckets."
Mr Byrne says that farmers in the area have been trained in cutting gorse and heather and how to burn uplands in a controlled manner which is "hard to get right".
He adds that farmers will also be rewarded for recording sheep numbers, and someone is also paid to look after the sheep and bring them back to the correct places.
SUAS held an information meeting last night and expression of interest forms for further farmers to take part in the project are available on wicklowuplands.ie.
"This is about ensuring the sustainable future of our uplands. The farmers don't have to be friends, they just have to work together. We hope at the end of 2022 we can produce a handbook on the project," says Mr Byrne.
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