‘It feels like we’re being bullied’ - farmer on rewetting peatland ahead of next EU vote

Farmers - for and against the rewetting of peat farmland - talk about their hopes and fears on the eve of the next vote on the nature restoration law at the European Parliament

For five generations, Michael Guinan’s family has farmed the soft peatlands of Offaly.

As dairy and beef farmers, they have seen many changes, including the mass drainage of land by Bord na Móna starting 80 years ago, but now a call to rewet that same bog under the nature restoration law has left Mr Guinan feeling vulnerable and his livelihood threatened.

“Farming is my sole occupation. We’re about 1km from bog Bord na Móna started rewetting a year ago and already I have noticed that an area of my land is wetter than normal,” he told The Irish Times.

“I just want it to be as profitable and productive a business as it can be. Not so much for me, I’m 66 years of age now, but for my son – he’s the next generation.


“We have spoken to Bord na Móna and asked for guarantees that if our land was unintentionally rewetted that they would do remedial work but they won’t put it in writing that they will fix any damage or that the water can be contained in the bog. It feels like we’re being bullied.”

The proposed nature restoration law, which includes plans to reduce emissions of greenhouse gas by flooding large tracts of agricultural lands, has caused much consternation both at home and in the European Parliament, where it narrowly avoided an attempt to kill it earlier this month.

On the eve of the next vote on the contentious law in the European Parliament to Tuesday , not every farmer is against the idea of the nature restoration law or rewetting their land.

Seamus Fallon is a beef farmer with 70 acres in the Athlone area and undertook to rewet five acres as part of the Farm Payments for Ecology and Agricultural Transitions (FarmPEAT) European Innovation Project (EIP).

He’s adamant that “rewetting does not mean flooding land”.

“We’ve put in six dams and a drain as part of the project and I don’t find there’s any bother with it,” he told The Irish Times.

“The water levels have increased on the land but I am able to control it myself and it doesn’t go over a certain height. I can still graze the land in the summer months.”

Mr Fallon inherited the land from his father and, at 75 years of age, gets a neighbour to help him on the farm.

One of the most helpful aspects he has found about being part of the FarmPEAT project is the farmer-led approach, which project manager Caroline Lalor says is a key aspect.

The FarmPeat EIP is a €1.2 million project which is in its second and final year. Ms Lalor says that so far they have signed up 51 farmers to participate in the results-based scheme in which farmers receive an annual payment of €100 to €9,000 based on their level of participation.

She’s hopeful that the EIP will be extended and is firm about the fact that the Government needs to make a long-term commitment of at least 20 years if they expect farmers to rewet land.

“You can’t plan a farming business and change anything drastic in a two- or five-year scheme,” she said.

“But at the same time, the figures show us that something needs to be done because intensively managed grassland on peatland emits 20 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions per hectare per year. That’s around the same as four cars in a year.”

The sectoral breakdown of farmers involved in the EIP also tells a story. Just four dairy farmers and one tillage farmer are involved, with the remaining 46 farmers keeping beef or sheep.

Last year, on average, dairy and tillage farmers earned more than €150,000 and €70,000 respectively. Beef farmers earned less than €10,000 and almost all beef and sheep farmers take off-farm employment to supplement their incomes.

Earnings from dairy and tillage farming make any perceived threat to their current use of land, such as the nature restoration law, appear as a threat to their livelihoods. To date, farmers feel the Government has not done enough to assuage those fears.

In an Irish context, the law means the restoration of 166,000 hectares of land by 2050, roughly half of which would need to be rewetted.

Under our Climate Action Plan, a commitment has already been made to rehabilitate 77,000 hectares of Bord na Móna land by 2030, which would almost completely satisfy the proposed requirement under the nature restoration law.

However, to date just 7,273 hectares have been rewetted by the organisation and even this relatively low level has caused outrage among many in the farm community who feel that they have not been consulted on the issue.

The Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers Association (ICMSA) has asked Minister for Climate Action Eamon Ryan, whose department has oversight over Bord na Móna, to meet its members several times in order to address their concerns regarding rewetting but the request has been repeatedly turned down.

The seam of anger rippling through the farm community will figure significantly in any future general election, and already political battle lines have been drawn.

Taoiseach and Fine Gael party leader Leo Varadkar has said the nature restoration law goes “too far”, while Ryan, the Green Party leader, has rejected what he has called “scaremongering” around the law and promised that farmland will not be subject to compulsory purchase orders for the purpose of rewetting.

Fianna Fáil’s Minister for Agriculture Charlie McConalogue has also insisted he is in favour of the law and taken a “leadership” position on it in Europe.

For all the political posturing in the three-party Coalition, many farmers are hopeful of the possibility of a rural party, similar to the right-wing BoerBurgerBeweging (BBB) party, a populist farmer-led movement that claimed almost 20 per cent of the vote in a shock election win in the Netherlands in March.

Given the debate over rewetting is happening around the constituencies of Independent TDs Michael Fitzmaurice and Carol Nolan, the idea of a rural party is gaining momentum and popularity among farmers.

However, none of this is likely to address the fundamental need for a Europe-wide restoration law, with recent research reporting that half of the species on earth are in decline.

But even a positive outcome for the vote will leave a bitter taste in the mouth of many Irish farmers who have felt bullied by the situation.

As Mr Guinan said: “Without bringing farmers on board, all this nature restoration thing is going to fall on its face.”