Putting the heart back into the Glens of Antrim
A ‘landscape partnership’ that takes in Cushendall, Cushendun and Torr Head could be a social and environmental model for all of Ireland
High point: the coastal village of Cushendun, on the breathtaking loop drive from Ballycastle
‘Ecologists and environmentalists,” Réamaí Mathers says, “are often divorced from reality, from the people trying to make a living on the land.” This might sound like an odd statement from someone who has practised guerrilla wild-flower gardening since childhood and went on to gain a doctorate in the ecology of brent geese.
But Mathers’s management strategy for the Heart of the Glens landscape partnership scheme, in Co Antrim, is based on putting the people of this beautiful but rapidly depopulating region at the centre of a multilayered conservation enterprise. There are 21 projects currently within the partnership, seeking to enhance local incomes through enhancing natural and built heritage.
“There’s a kind of myopia if you look at an uplands farm and just see curlew-breeding habitat,” he says. “You’ve got to engage the farmers where they are, see the land the way they see it.”
His first question to a farmer is: what can the partnership do to make your farm better? Farmers probably take this more seriously because he knows something about what he’s asking about: he and his wife keep a farm on Fair Head themselves, although he is characteristically self-deprecating about his agricultural skills.
It must also help that Mathers, although a “runner”, or blow-in, from Newry, is so articulately passionate about so many aspects of the glens. We take a breathtaking drive from Ballycastle across the hills to Glenariffe and back by the switchback coastal route via Cushendall, Cushendun and the spectacular Torr Head.
His conversation ranges from fairy lore to the intimate cultural and linguistic links with the Mull of Kintyre, just across the water. He speaks Irish, which he prefers to call Gaelic, fluently. Somehow the conversation then segues to the key European role of Bonamargy Friary in the Counter-Reformation. Then we are talking about the training of tour guides.
En route we stop at the imposing family home of the partnership’s chairman, Patrick Casement. The place was very dear to his relative Roger Casement, the 1916 leader. But we are there to see a rather more remote historical feature. Patrick Casement has long wanted to open public access across his land to the 15th-century Culfeightrin church, of which only one wall remains standing. But insurance concerns had stymied his intentions. The partnership secured local-council backing for a new right of way and funded an entry point and signage.
We move on to a meeting organised by Tourism Northern Ireland in Kilmore House, a fine Georgian mansion, soon to be a boutique hotel, in Glenariffe. The role of the partnership here is to help local tourism businesses to find new ways of attracting clients to the glens for more than a single night, before they move on to the magnet of the Giant’s Causeway.
But the landscape in the glens generally has deteriorated for reasons familiar from other Irish uplands areas: overgrazing, turf extraction and now, increasingly, undergrazing because of depopulation and abandonment. So we are back to the central role of the farmers, and what the partnership can do for them.
Mathers started by organising top-class courses on key agricultural issues, from soil management to choice of cattle breed. Meanwhile, partnership staff mapped each glen, using SciMap software to predict water-logged or flood-prone areas. They propose native woodland stands and hedgerows at appropriate points to alleviate these issues, and find additional funding for these projects from the Woodland Trust.
Just before evening falls we visit a small example of what the partnership looks like on the ground. Laying a good hedge is a remarkable but vanishing craft that the landscape partnership is working to revive, because it offers multiple agricultural and environmental benefits.
Mathers had to go as far as Leitrim to find an instructor. John Birtwistle had learnt the skill in his native England. We find him teaching five locals on a sharp, bright winter afternoon on a farm nestled under the dramatic slopes of Glenariffe.
The “maiden” hedge they’re working on is all hawthorn, planted 15 years ago. This slim row of small trees cannot hold in livestock in its natural state, and itself has to be protected by a barbed-wire fence.
Paradoxically, or so it seems, the hedge is greatly strengthened by slicing, with a formidable billhook, almost entirely across the very base of each tree. You then bend the whole trunk and branches until they are almost horizontal. The vital trick is not to snap the slim connection to the stump. Next you pleach, or weave, the thorny limbs in among their neighbours.
Ash stakes are driven in along the hedge for support in its early years, but sprouts from the sliced stumps will soon give it strong living vertical structure. Meanwhile, the branches from the old trunk will keep growing, bushing out on each side, until they present an impenetrable prickly barrier to livestock. No more need for barbed wire.
Meanwhile, the hedges offer nesting habitat for birds, corridors for small mammals, and flowers for pollinators; wild flowers like sanicle and primrose will soon flourish colourfully under the protective thorns.
Mathers believes that, through a multitude of small projects like this, the partnership can show that a typical rural community can work together and flourish while biodiversity thrives. “That could become a model for the whole country,” he says.
SIMPLE AND TRANSPARENT: THE VIEW FROM A FARM
He says that his main motivation for participating is to improve his farm income. And it will indeed take years to see how the planting really affects his land. But he welcomes the simplicity and transparency of working with the partnership, compared with EU-funded agrienvironmental schemes that, he says, “just do not do what it says on the tin”.