Farmers share in €10m pot to save endangered 'sky dancers'
A select group of farmers has enjoyed a €10m cash bonanza through a scheme aimed at conserving hen harriers on their lands.
Known as "sky dancers" for their elaborate aerial displays, hen harriers are regarded as a valuable barometer when gauging the health of our countryside.
But despite major investment, the population of one of our rarest birds of prey is still in serious decline.
It is costing approximately €2,600 to save each of just over 300 of the raptors remaining in Ireland today.Latest figures show there are only between 108 and 157 breeding pairs still surviving.
This is lower than comparable population estimates in 2010 - when it is understood we had between 128 and 172 pairs.
Overall the national population has declined by 8.7pc in five years. In 2005, the number of pairs ranged from 132 to 153.
However, hen harriers are providing a financial boost for a select group of farmers who have agreed to implement a sophisticated conservation plan on their lands.
New figures obtained by the Sunday Independent show these landowners have shared a €10.5m environmental package in the past six years.
Some €920,595 was paid out in the past two years alone.
In 2015, an overall package of €826,685 was allocated to the farmers who took part in the conservation efforts.
In 2016, €94,000 was handed over to those taking part in the initiative.
Participants in four counties took part in the conservation scheme, with Special Protected Areas (SPAs) operating in Kerry, Limerick, Tipperary and Offaly.
Official figures show a farmer in Tipperary enjoyed the single largest payment of €13,580.
Another farmer based in Tipperary received €10,215.
And two other recipients in the same county shared a combined payout of €18,176.
Among the measures they must implement on their lands is the creation of 'small mammal' areas.
Combined with special hedgerows, this allows the birds of prey to breed and roam in safety.
Designated SPA areas have been implemented in some of the most idyllic parts of the country, including the Slieve Bloom mountains in Laois and Offaly, and the Slieve Aughty range spread over parts of Galway and Clare.
Overall, farmers in Co Clare collectively received the largest windfall for their conservation efforts over the past six years - with €2.7m in payments to land owners.
The corresponding figure for the Limerick area was €2.3m.
BirdWatch Ireland says supporting farmers within the special areas is key to conservation, and adequate supports will protect natural habitats, as well as the wider ecosystem.
But it warns there will be a further decline in the hen harrier population without intervention and appropriate conservation management.
Meanwhile, it has also emerged a record number of birds of prey were illegally shot or poisoned in Ireland last year.
Figures show there were 35 "poison and persecution incidents", some involving multiple deaths.
The figure represents the largest annual total since the keeping of comprehensive records began in 2011.