Two years into the GLAS the numbers are stacking up but conservationists and hill farmers argue more needs to be done

 

The GLAS scheme involves more than 50,000 farmers
The GLAS scheme involves more than 50,000 farmers
Claire Fox

Claire Fox

A lot done and more to do appears to be the lie of the land two years into the GLAS scheme which involves more than 50,000 farmers in programmes to promote biodiversity and reduce the impact of agriculture on the environment.

The figures are certainly impressive:

  • 41,000 farmers are managing almost 270,000 hectares of low-input permanent pasture, including traditional hay meadows
  • 12,000 are managing designated NATURA (Special Areas of Conservation and Special Protection Areas)
  • 75,000 hectares of land for farmland birds is being managed under GLAS. This includes 39,000 hectares for hen harriers, 16,500 hectares for geese and swans and 13,000 hectares for choughs
  • 4,700 farmers in GLAS are applying slurry using low emission slurry spreading methods
  • On the tillage front, 2,700 farmers are growing 34,000 hectares of catch crops; 600 are using minimum tillage cultivations on almost 9,000 hectares of tillage crops; 270 have planted 400 km of arable grass margins
  • Up to 12,000 farmers are growing almost 20,000 hectares of wild bird cover
  • In an effort to promote tree and hedgerow growth, more than 4,000 farmers have planted almost two million native trees in groves
  • 7,500 farmers have planted 1,200 km of new hedging, while over 3,300 km was rejuvenated, 80pc coppiced and 20pc laid
  • Almost 1300 farmers have planted traditional orchards containing 10 apple trees of traditional varieties
  • 800 farmers are rearing rare breeds such as the Kerry, Dexter and Irish Maol cattle; the Irish draught horse, Connemara and Kerry Bog ponies and Galway sheep
  • Over 470,000 bird, bat and bee boxes and sand habitats for bees have been installed.

However, hill farmers working marginal land, mainly in the west, have ongoing issues with GLAS.

"From the onset the scheme it has caused us concern," says Vincent Roddy of the Irish Nature and Hill Farmers Association.

"There is an issue with the collective requirement for commonage farmers and also the inability of many privately -owned hill farmers to join the scheme," Mr Roddy said.

"Hill farmers don't qualify for low pasture or traditional hay meadow, so it's hard for us to draw payments from GLAS. This needs to be addressed and amendments have to be made for hill farmers to feel the benefits.

"The big issue, of course, is the failure of the Department to pay farmers on time or even close to when they should be paid. This has dogged the scheme from the start and continues to cause problems.

"The department say that it is a complicated scheme but we must remember it was they who designed it. In the Farmers Charter of Rights, GLAS or other agri-environmental payments are supposed to be paid by November," Mr Roddy added.

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"Given this, we would argue that in future all Department of Agriculture Schemes need to see the Farmers Charter of Rights implemented as part of the terms and conditions of each scheme."

IFA Environment Chairman Thomas Cooney is more upbeat about GLAS, saying that the numbers involved prove farmers are actively contributing to the environment in a positive way.

"All these measures show that farmers are committed to lowering emissions and greater biodiversity in general. There's been a whole change of mindset," he said.

But Padraig Fogarty of the Irish Wildlife Trust believes that GLAS doesn't go far enough to change farmer attitudes.

"Farmers themselves need to come up with solutions and ideas. Instead they are being given money and told to tick boxes. It would be better if the money given to farmers was based on results.

"Extensive research was done on REPS and it proved that it did nothing to protect habitats - things have to change."

Mark Mc Dowell, chairman of the Hedge Laying Association of Ireland, (HLAI) told the Farming Independent that while GLAS - like its predecessor, the REPS scheme - increased the number of hedgerows, it didn't necessarily improve quality.

He assays that the "craft" of hedge laying isn't something that can be achieved in a five-year scheme like GLAS.

"Anyone can plant a hedge but it's all about the aftercare. The hedges of the country are in an awful state. We need a long-term project to improve the quality. It requires more than a five-year plan."

He also claimed that people are engaging in mechanical hedge laying.

"The figure of hedge laying is beyond anything that could've been achieved manually. Mechanical hedge laying is not acceptable in the scheme but we are aware that it has been enforced. It crushes and weakens the hedge. It can't be a positive thing for wildlife," he said.

Herbicides

Agricultural advisor Pat Minnock says that while increased wild bird cover is a positive measure, he think that the issue of herbicides "needs to be revisited" as weeds are on the rise in these areas and rats are also becoming problematic.

In an effort to reduce water pollution, 28,500 farmers are fencing almost 15,000 kilometres of watercourses at a distance of 1.5 metres from the bank.

Jenny Deakin, Senior Scientist at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said that while this method of water management is best practice internationally, research is ongoing to find out whether will work here.

"It is a good measure but we need to see if it fits the Irish context. It keeps animals out and manages sediment impact and nutrients, but we're still in the early days, so it's hard to tell."

And even though 470,000 bird, bat and bee boxes were installed on farms, Kate McAney of the Vincent Wildlife Trust says the boxes are "completely unsuitable" for one species - the Native Lesser Horseshoe bat, due to its inability to crawl like other bats.

"It's disappointing that there's nothing for these bats as they really rely on farms as habitats. We're hoping to get funding for a farmer project to conserve the lesser horseshoe," she says.

The final word goes to Catherine Keena, Countryside Management Specialist at Teagasc.

She says that while improvements can always be made to the scheme, the fact that GLAS involves 50,000 farmers proves it is having a positive impact on the environment.

"It makes farmers more environmentally aware and it helps them focus on why they are doing these actions.

"Of course improvements can always be made but it involves 50,000 farmers with 500 courses around the country so it is having a positive impact. Farmers are really engaged."

The deadline to complete GLAS courses before the end of the year is putting farmers under unnecessary pressure, claims agricultural consultant Pat Minnock.

"Farmers are under a lot of pressure as it is. It has to be done in two months which is very tight and unfair. There's no leeway and if you can't do them [the courses], you're kicked out,"

He also questioned why "we waited until the wettest autumn to start the courses", when the scheme began two years ago. "There's health and safety issues around working in the dark on farms at this time of the year. It's ridiculous. They should have been rolled out earlier."

Agricultural advisor Richard Hackett agrees that deadlines are too tight. "I know there's deadlines to be met but farmers should be given more time to discuss issues such as farm safety. They won't learn much in a cold field in December."

A Department of Agriculture spokesperson, said that "the duration of the course is 6 hours and participants are being paid to partake in the course. This is the most suitable time of year for training for many GLAS participants with less on farm work pressure."

The spokesperson added that "all GLAS Advisors facilitating GLAS Training have a professional qualification and have been trained by the Department in their role as a GLAS Advisor. Each GLAS training session must comprise of two training sessions and the GLAS Trainer must hold one of these sessions either in the morning or afternoon on a host farm. It is also open to a GLAS Trainer to provide both sessions on a host farm."

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