As sheep leave the hills, what’s to become of Ireland’s uplands?

Michael Viney: Ecologists would leave them to nature. Teagasc and the EU prefer farming

Decline in hill farming: only 8,500 commonage farmers have sheep, and only 6,000 of these have mountain breeds. Illustration: Michael Viney

Decline in hill farming: only 8,500 commonage farmers have sheep, and only 6,000 of these have mountain breeds. Illustration: Michael Viney

 

The rising sun rolls north on cue, from its winter pop-up at the mountain’s shoulder to the ridge outside the kitchen window. Soon it will shine in on us at breakfast, gleaming above the sheep, the stream and the mountain fence beyond.

I used to climb that fence, cocking a leg (carefully) over the top strand of barbed wire, and trudging on up to the ridge’s peaty summit. I once did it every morning for weeks, with a rucksack full of rope, getting fit for Greenland.

But now I just look at photographs of robust young ones walking the hills – all those great views and blue distances – and enjoy the uplands by proxy. I also wonder where the uplands are going, a question echoed at a big Teagasc “agri-environment” conference earlier this month. “Farming the uplands: where to from here?” asked one of its key papers. (It’s available in the publications section of teagasc.ie.)

“Here”, in this context, is the steady decline in hill sheep farming over the past 15 years. Only 8,500 commonage farmers have sheep, and only 6,000 of these have mountain breeds, such as Scottish blackface or Wicklow Cheviot.

Half the farmers declaring commonage on their payment applications aren’t grazing their hilly hectares at all

That’s happened since the European Union woke up to the overstocking and overgrazing of peatland prompted by its headage payments and instead brought in the Basic Payment Scheme. Now half the farmers declaring commonage on their payment applications aren’t actually grazing their hilly hectares at all.

This is while active upland farming is part of qualifying for the Basic Payment Scheme and the Greening scheme (both replacing the old Single Farm Payment), the Green Low-Carbon Agri-Environment Scheme, or Glas, and the “Areas of Natural Constraint” (which used to be “disadvantaged”) programme. Indeed, they are likely to lose their eligibility if the ungrazed commonage is not maintained in good agricultural and environmental condition, or GAEC, to conform with “cross compliance”.

It seems inevitable to Teagasc researchers at the conference, led by Declan Byrne, that if this goes on “vast tracts of commonage will become ineligible [and] completely abandoned because market returns from hill sheep production are not economically justifiable in the absence of income supports”.

For many ecological enthusiasts, leaving “vast tracts” of Irish hills to nature, or restoring them with native trees, would be ideal. New woodlands of Scots pine, birch and sessile oak flourish in their dreams. I know a man in Co Wicklow who carries a bunch of pine seedlings on his hill walks and plants them where he can, inside little barricades of rocks.

Neither the EU nor Teagasc can bear the thought of uplands smothered ungrazeably with unmanaged heather, scrub or trees.

“Farming,” the conference was told (in a Take Home Message), “is the only way to manage the uplands to achieve the three pillars of sustainability: social, economic and environmental.” All the income schemes must be made dependent on upland grazing, with “new, innovative ways of dealing with upland farmers”.

Along with advice on rooting out and poisoning of gorse bushes, the paper discusses management of hill vegetation, both for better grazing and for biodiversity.

Purple moor grass, for example, Molinia caerulea (a little bit purple in spring), is the shimmering cloak of Ireland’s wet, acid hillsides and bogs. It turns to lion’s-mane gold in autumn when its big tussocks die. Then, too, its long leaves break off and fly in the wind to drape the moorland fences.

Cattle enjoy munching moor grass in its early juiciness, whereas burning, Teagasc insists, can make a dense growth worse

Without grazing, however, the shed leaves in autumn can pack down in a dense litter at the roots, choking out other plants and species. Cattle enjoy munching moorgrass in its early juiciness, whereas burning, the Teagasc team insists, can just make a dense growth worse.

On drier ground, heather now creeps back in the wake of overgrazing, but it can still face uncontrolled fires, along with its ground-nesting birds, in any dry April.

One tends to think of heather as the desirable, optimal cover of the hills, but that’s to misjudge its place in the natural succession of upland plants. In moorland ecology, heather growth rises sharply as mosses and grasses decline and then gives way to an increase of trees – climax woodland – in a richer depth of soil.

All this can take nature a very long time, during which heather’s nectar and pollen offer nourishment for bees, flies and moths. It supports a further 30 insects or more, its shoots feed hares and grouse, and lichens, mosses and rare liverworts shelter beneath its stems.

The Teagasc ideal is “a mosaic of heather and grassland with a good distribution of heather of all ages”, this achieved by “prescribed burning, in patches, of tall, strong heather”. Heather, it seems, has a natural, unburnt lifespan of some 30 years, with four life stages: pioneer, building, mature and then leggy and “degenerate”. Lifting mine eyes to the hills, I can suspect which stage I’m at.

Michael Viney’s Reflections on Another Life, a selection of columns from the past four decades, is available from irishtimes.com/irishtimesbooks

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