A €21 million project to restore vast areas of blanket bog throughout northwest Ireland has been unveiled with farmers and communities set to play a leading role in their conservation.
Globally, Ireland contains 8 per cent of the world’s blanket bog, but much of it is in poor condition and requires careful management to bring it back to favourable condition.
The LIFE IP Wild Atlantic Nature (WAN) project was launched in Ballycroy National Park, Co Mayo, on Friday by Minister of State for Heritage Malcolm Noonan and Minister of State for Land Use and Biodiversity Pippa Hackett.
It aims to deliver environmental and social benefits through the conservation and restoration of blanket bog habitat covering 35 sites – totalling 250,000 hectares – along the western seaboard from south Galway to north Donegal.
The project is coordinated by the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage. Mr Noonan said he could think of no better way to kick off National Biodiversity Week.
The innovative project puts people, and the ecological health of the landscapes they live and work in, at the heart of its efforts, he said. “I believe collaborative approaches like this one are the best ways to deliver real impact for nature.”
He added: “It’s a great example of the successes already underway. The protection of our blanket bog habitats is vitally important as we work to address our biodiversity and climate crises.”
In 2021 WAN successfully launched a pilot results-based agri-environment payment scheme (RBPS) in the Owenduff/Nephin Complex special area of conservation, which is being expanded to Donegal, Sligo and other parts of Mayo.
The RBPS directly links farmer payments to the environmental quality of their farm. This incentivises and rewards restoration and conservation of high-quality habitats and puts farmers and their skills and knowledge of their land central to the initiative.
The results will inform future results-based actions to be incorporated into Common Agricultural Policy agri-environment, climate measures known as AECMs from 2023.
More than 150 Mayo farmers took part initially and received total payments in excess of €500,000, while more than 800 farmers are expected to benefit from the scheme this year. Average farmer payment was €3,200; ranging from €800 to more than €10,000.
"LIFE IP Wild Atlantic Nature is a fantastic project driven by the local community and delivering results for nature and biodiversity," Ms Hackett said. "The results-based element is very important because it supports farmers to really engage and deliver for their local ecosystem."
It has already embarked on an invasive species control project to stop spread of Rhododendron ponticum in the Delphi area, which was conceived by local landowners. They are developing a community-led control programme and will produce an action plan including best practice guidelines for communities and local authorities.
In addition to conservation work, WAN will also implement actions to enhance wider community engagement and education with the help of the Heritage Council. It will also embark on site surveys and ecological assessments, and provide training for nature conservation, control of invasive species, fire prevention and water management.
Project manager Dr Derek McLoughlin said coherence was a crucial driver of ecological restoration. “This project aims to implement Government policies related to nature, agriculture and climate in a way that works for the local community.”
He added: Ultimately we depend on landowners to manage the land to deliver the goods and services that the public want and need. We depend on existing knowledge and experience that landowners and land managers have. Therefore, we need to ensure coherent messages on the use of land and have the appropriate policy to deliver good environmental outcomes in a way that can support farmers’ livelihoods.”
"We have been blown away with the level of support we have received from farmers and local communities in the first year of the project. We were working in difficult circumstances with the Covid pandemic, but despite this, local people have really engaged with the project and have been extremely willing to get involved and put forward novel ideas for blanket bog conservation," said Dr Gary Goggins who is involved in the project.
Blanket bogs are valuable wetlands that provide drinking water, store huge amounts of carbon, provide habitats for biodiversity – acting as a home for many endangered and vulnerable species. They also provide high quality food and act as social and cultural amenities.