Burren scheme shows benefits of farming on environment

Part two of a series on agriculture and climate change ahead of Paris UN conference in December 2015

Brendan Dunford, at the Burren in Co Clare, says a key aspect of the project is how it was voluntarily initiated by local farmers. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

Brendan Dunford, at the Burren in Co Clare, says a key aspect of the project is how it was voluntarily initiated by local farmers. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons


Oireachtas committees are not famous for displays of consensual enthusiasm. It’s especially unusual to hear Government TDs tripping over each other to endorse a scheme in which they had no hand, act or part.

But on January 15th, 2013, the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine gave an exceptionally warm and unanimous welcome to the Burren Life Programme’s presentation on farming for conservation.

“What motivates us are thriving, rural communities, managing outstanding local environments,” the programme manager, agricultural scientist Brendan Dunford, told the committee. “We can be world leaders in that regard. We have the model and the expertise and we would like to see it taken to the next level.”

These are pretty big claims, and one might have expected some scepticism. And indeed, Fianna Fáil member Éamon Ó Cuív asked a series of penetrating and well-informed questions. But he clearly shared the view that the Burren farmers might indeed be national champions for a new and constructive relationship between agriculture and the environment.

Dunford explained that the Burren programme differs from the more familiar EU agri-environmental schemes, like the Rural Environment Protection Scheme (REPS – now revamped as GLAS), in two key ways. First, it was initiated voluntarily by local farmers themselves, and participants retain a great deal of control over how they manage their land. Second, this management is assessed by its actual environmental outcomes, rather than by carrying out box-ticking actions (or inactions).


Dunford’s Oireachtas presentation was also warmly endorsed by Fine Gael’s Joe Heyden, and several of his colleagues. “This is a good news story,” Heyden said. “I also support the extension of the programme to other sensitive landscapes throughout the State.”

Perhaps the most remarkable contribution was made by Michael Davoren, a farmer who participates in the programme and represented the IFA at the presentation. In a few phrases, he summed up the way in which the programme turns our conventional thinking about agriculture and the environment upside down.

“The environmentalists will state what we need to protect and the farmers will decide how it can be protected. I know this because for 4,500 years the farmers protected it by accident. They produced livestock to live and the environment was the by-product. Today, the environment is the product and the cattle are the by-product. I may have gone off kilter a bit.”

The committee chairman, Andrew Doyle TD, didn’t think he had. “That is a fabulous insight,” he commented.

Fabulous or not, the notion that farmers can “produce” healthy environments – and should be paid by our society for doing so – is certainly a radical one, but it is beginning to gain a lot of traction.

The Burren presentation was rewarded with a little more than fine words. Under the Rural Development Plan, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine has allocated €70 million, over the next five years, to expand the scheme in the Burren, and launch a handful of similar projects across the country.

For those who see such locally managed and outcome-based schemes as a key element in combatting both rural depopulation and environmental degradation, this allocation remains disappointingly small. Especially so in relation to the €1.4 billion channelled to the new successor to REPS, the Green Low-Carbon Agri-Environmental Scheme (GLAS), over the same period.

But agricultural scientist James Moran of Sligo IT, a key consultant on the Burren programme, told The Irish Times that even this small step is a remarkable one, and should be welcomed.

“Our Department of Agriculture, above any other member state’s, has made this leap of faith,” he says. He explained that the EU has created a complex administrative system for assessing agri-environmental schemes based on prescriptive actions, and that “the computer says No” to switching to results-based schemes.

While the Directorate-General for the Environment in Brussels is showing keen interest in the Burren model, and is now providing extra funding for some pilot projects including two in Ireland, the Directorate-General for Agriculture remains distinctly unconvinced.


Or, as Michael Davoren puts it: “Big ships are very difficult to turn around. Agriculture is a big ship.” He and Moran concur that REPS-type action-based schemes have made a contribution, and are still needed as part of the general agri-environmental strategy.

“Before REPS, the environment was going out the window,” says Davoren bluntly.

The rush for grants from Brussels was destructive. “We would have bulldozed the Burren if we could have got European money for doing so. There were bushes in the gaps instead of gates. There was slurry in the streams. There was black plastic in every hedge. REPS is the tool that enabled farmers to put this right.”

Divergence between the EU’s agricultural and environmental policies has a long history. While the Directorate-General for Agriculture was busy promoting the headage payments that turned so much of our western uplands into overgrazed black deserts, the Directorate-General for the Environment was drawing up the Birds and Habitats directives that would seek to preserve the biodiversity of just such areas.

Ironically, it was initially resistance to the requirements of these directives, often perceived by farmers as restricting their traditional rights on their own lands, which gave birth to the Burren Life project.

Davoren recalls local “fury” at the lists of prohibitions emanating from Brussels, and arriving courtesy of Dúchas (now NPWS) on farmers’ doorsteps. “Dúchas had a one-size-fits-all approach that made no sense in the Burren,” he says. “But rather than curse the dark we decided to light a candle.”

That light was amplified by a consultation with Teagasc, the agriculture development authority. Teagasc advised the Burren farmers to seek academic backing for a form of conservation compatible with their traditional land management.

The illuminating breakthrough came when Dunford, then a PhD student at UCD, pinpointed a surprising fact: a key conservation problem in the Burren was caused by too little farming, rather than by too much.

Less attractive

One of several core elements of the programme was the “production” of increasingly scrub-free hillsides by the reintroduction of grazing. Finally, the whole package was agreed, in a remarkable consensus, by the local farmers, Teagasc, the IFA, and a now-enthusiastic NPWS.

Strong funding, initially largely from EU LIFE, enabled farmers to earn up to €15,000 a year for conservation-friendly practices, significantly more than they could have drawn down from standard agri-environmental schemes. And payment levels are determined by scores for the environmental conditions they achieved.

“If a cow my farm produces is not good enough for the market, I’ll do everything I can to make it better,” says Davoren. “That’s the challenge. It’s the same with producing a better landscape.”

The insight that traditional agricultural practices often benefit biodiversity and healthy environments, while rural abandonment may degrade a mosaic of ecosystems to a species-poor monoculture, still seems too counter-intuitive for many policy-makers to grasp. But it celebrates a millennial interplay between humans and nature that we ignore at our peril. It offers a way forward that could keep vibrant communities on the land, while assisting in the good management of the landscapes that we all cherish.

On the other side of the country from the Burren, Pat Dunne is very active on the Wicklow Uplands Council, which brings together farmers, other residents and recreational users of the landscape. He also chairs the IFA hill farmers’ committee, which represents 20,000 members.

Dunne is an enthusiastic fan of the Burren programme, and believes it could be usefully embraced by the growing uplands council movement across the country. He is disappointed that relatively little funding has been allocated to rolling it out so far.

“The programme works in the Burren because it is all about the delivery of a public good,” says Dunne. “That works better for the farmer, the environment, and for recreation. I see very little merit in paying farmers for what they don’t do,” he adds, referring to aspects of the mainstream agri-environmental schemes.

Dunne also likes the way the Burren programme taps into and respects local expertise, the intimate knowledge a farmer can have of what works best to achieve desired environmental results on his own land.

He thinks the centralised imposition of rigid calendars for burning, mowing or hedge-cutting is stupid, because conditions vary from year to year and from place to place. He would prefer farmers to be trusted, in consultation with locally based scientific advisers, to adapt such calendars themselves.

Dunne’s experience on the uplands council, working with a variety of often-clashing interests, has convinced him that “consensus is very hard work, but it’s much better to strive for it than to force through a majority vote”.


With the support of the volunteer group Mountain Meitheal, however, a boardwalk has been built that offers excellent public access to the mountain, plus a particularly spectacular view of the Carrawaystick waterfall, but respects the privacy of the cottage. It’s a collaborative solution that works for everyone.

Dunne patently loves his home place. He speaks of missing the corncrakes he used to hear in his youth, and of the time he found something else he is very unlikely to find in Glenmalure today, a curlew’s nest with three eggs in it.

He is the first to admit that some farmers’ bad environmental stewardship “gave us all a bad name”. But he adds that most of the farmers he knows and works with “love the uplands, and want to hand them down in good condition”.


In all the hyperbole about our “green” farming practices, we do have one genuinely world-class model for high nature value farming in the Burren Life Programme. Isn’t it time to give it the kind of national rollout it merits?

Paddy Woodworth is the author of Our Once and Future Planet: Restoring the World in the Climate Change Century (University of Chicago Press 2013, published in paperback this month) and is a founding member of the Irish Forum on Natural Capital

Pressure on small farms It’s 57 years since John Healy published No One Shouted Stop, his influential book documenting the decay of a small Mayo town. Teagasc’s annual reports on farm viability show that that rural decline continues inexorably: two-thirds of family farms generate less than an annual industrial wage, and that percentage is much higher on marginal land in the west, and on uplands generally.

The 2014 CEDRA report confirmed that many rural communities are collapsing. At its launch the Taoiseach told us he “had a plan”, that he was “passionate about rural Ireland”. But most of its recommendations seem to have been shelved.

The EU policy of subsidising small farmers has a strong social rationale – it gives vulnerable and isolated communities a chance to survive. They might be able to thrive if we adequately recognised that there can also be a strong environmental rationale, linking into multiple social and economic benefits. Neither abandoned marginal farms, nor marginal farmland ceded to industrial forestry, produce high levels of biodiversity.

Marginal land

But such farmers need to be properly paid, properly consulted, and offered clear scientific guidance.

That is far from the case today. Diversions of significant EU funds, ear-marked for conservation farming but transferred from marginal to “productive” areas, show that there is little appetite, in Government or the higher echelons of the IFA, to invest serious money or serious thought in this green opportunity.

Worse, marginal farmers working on or near conserv- ation sites have recently found themselves caught in a tangle of regulations of Kafkaesque dimensions.

Many have tried to comply with NPWS instructions to manage habitat in accord- ance with EU directives. Defaulters face fines. And then they have been told by Department inspectors that they are no longer eligible for Single Farm Scheme (SFS) payments, on which they may be largely dependent, because their land is no longer “productive”.


The Oireachtas agriculture committee, meeting last April, heard that extreme financial and emotional stress had been caused to many farming families because of this debacle of conflicting regulations.

“The confusion around eligibility guidelines in this crucial first year of a new Common Agricultural Policy was entirely unacceptable,” said committee chair, Andrew Doyle. He made the usual call for “joined-up thinking” between departments. On the ground, however, the chaos continues. Small wonder many farmers today are not exactly enamoured of the word “conservation”.

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