What's good for the environment can also be good for your pocket

Grey Partridge are protected under the environmental initiative
Grey Partridge are protected under the environmental initiative
Ann Fitzgerald

Ann Fitzgerald

The envelopes landing on the doorstep don't always bring such excitment. I was relieved and delighted last week when a letter landed in from the Department confirming that we had been accepted into the first tranche of GLAS, the Green Low-carbon, Agri-Environment Scheme.

Even though we knew our submission ranked high enough to qualify, I still feared there could be some unknown fly in the ointment that could upset the apple-cart, as it were.

I also knew we probably wouldn't get into the second, far smaller, tranche as the priority will be farms with what are termed Tier 1 Environmental assets, like endangered birds, Natura Habitats and commonage land.

As for the excitement part, this is the kind of stuff we are interested in doing anyway. We believe it's good on the environment front and being paid for it somehow rubber-stamps the belief that we're on the right track.

Hopefully, as my husband Robin says, I'll be just as enthusiastic when it comes to updating our Nutrient Management Plan!

This is the first time that we would have seriously considered joining any agri-environmental scheme because it's based on selecting a number of specific actions rather than being a whole farm programme.

While I believe we do adhere to good farm practice in how we operate, we would have felt the payment under previous schemes would have been so diluted across the farm as to make it unappealing.

Sustainability is the buzz word de jour in Irish agriculture. To my mind, this comprises a number of elements, including increasing the area under forestry and biomass crops, improving animal efficiency through better genetics and management, and what could be termed the "re-integration" of environmental principles into mainstream farming.

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While farmers traditionally worked in close harmony with the environment, there has been a more recent divergence of paths, to such an extent that there are now two extremes in this country - those who farm primarily environmentally and those who farm primarily commercially. There is often a sense of ne'er the twain shall meet.

Well, ours is a commercial farm yet we also have environmental aspirations.

Environmental sustainability is about getting more from less, i.e. being more efficient, growing better grass and more of it, so having your nutrients at a correct level and so on. It's about knowing the characteristics of each field and managing it accordingly.

In the past few years, we have upped our beef stocking rate and have reduced our carbon footprint.

Figures compiled by Bord Bia show the carbon footprint for our beef enterprise fell from 12.97-10kg equivalent CO2 per kg of beef liveweight in the 18-month period up to the middle of 2014 (the average for our system at the time was 13, it is now 12). Over roughly the same period, our stocking rate increased from 1.9-2.1LU/ha, due to more land being put into tillage.

However, if Ireland is to really move to a sustainable agriculture, general sectoral improvements are not going to be enough. I believe there also has to be an element of individual farmer responsibility. So instead of the current enterprise approach, I would love to see Bord Bia move to a total farm approach to these measurements. It would give each farmer greater emotional ownership of their own carbon footprint. I have visions of the day that when a farmer would feel pride about optimising output, it would be on an environmental as well economic basis.

We ourselves have a notion that, at some point in the future, we would aim to become a carbon neutral farm. Though we don't yet know if that is possible or what it would entail. Actually, we are currently investigating how to go about it.

Our GLAS plan is comprised of three actions, planting a new native species hedge, low-input permanent pasture and wild bird cover, the last of which interests me most.

The aim of this action is to provide nesting area for ground nesting birds and a winter food source for farmland birds, so a spring-sown seed mix is left unharvested over the winter.

Farmers have the option of sowing either a one year or two year mix. At the outset we were thinking of going for the two year, because we felt it would not only be better for the birds in the sense that there would be a continuous cover for longer and, as it involves only one sowing, it would be cheaper.

However, we are now reconsidering this, as we are concerned that it might not provide much food in Year 2 and, secondly, that it might get fairly "dirty" at that time. So we are also canvassing views on that front.

Indo Farming

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