Ireland’s plan for sustainable agricultural development is fundamentally weak on environment and lacks targets and ambition to address emerging biodiversity and climate crises, environmental NGOs have warned.
Less than 5 per cent of Ireland's Common Agricultural Policy (Cap) budget will be targeted to support farmers to halt biodiversity loss, which will increase threats to farmland birds and habitats which are already under pressure, according to Oonagh Duggan, head of advocacy with BirdWatch Ireland (BWI).
This meant an urgently required transformation of Irish agriculture "remained elusive", she told the Oireachtas committee on agriculture on Wednesday.
The draft Cap strategic plan for 2023-2027 was “very weak . . . with nothing substantive to tackle high methane levels, and unclear outcomes for the investment in nitrogen reduction measures”.
The plan, which includes supports worth almost €10 billion, is due to be brought to Cabinet shortly for sign off before being sent to Brussels for review and approval by the European Commission.
“Much greater support and targeting of actions and funding is needed on all farmland, especially high nature value farmland and pulling the brakes on the intensification model,” she added.
Farmland birds were the fastest growing bird group coming onto BWI’s “red list”, which identifies species of highest conservation concern, she confirmed.
“One third of our wild bee species are at risk of extinction and 85 per cent of our internationally important habitats are in unfavourable condition . . . Species and habitats that rely on good water quality are also under pressure because water quality is declining. Agriculture is the biggest pressure and threat to these too,” Ms Duggan said.
While farmers can choose to have 10 per cent of “space for nature” under a new ecoscheme, there was no requirement to improve the quality of these farmland habitats.
“Specialist ecological advice should be made available to help farmers improve the quality of hedgerows, ponds, wetlands and more. Unless there are measures for “improvement” the state of nature will not change,” she warned.
While there were measures to support waders including the curlew, a budget of at least €30 million was needed to save this group of rapidly declining red list species.
“The focus of Food Vision 2030 is a continuation of an intensification model with unambitious tweaks to address the environmental challenges in agriculture,” she noted.
The plan had seen some improvements for farmland biodiversity “but it is not an emergency response”, Ms Duggan said.
Fintan Kelly of the Environmental Pillar (EP) said agriculture was by far the most significant pressure impacting on Ireland's biodiversity, water and air quality, and greenhouse gas emissions.
“There has been a long-standing societal failure to align the sector with planetary boundaries, our environment’s carrying capacity or Ireland’s legal obligations,” he said.
While there were elements of the plan they strongly support; “this Cap and other Government policies will regrettably fail to address the defining social and environmental issues of our time because ultimately, they aren’t designed to,” he said. “Many of the proposed actions are not ambitious enough or targeted enough to deliver the degree of change that is needed.”
Charles Stanley-Smith, EP representative on the Cap consultative committee, said it had insufficient ambition to deliver meaningful climate action.
He added: “There are no clear deliverables listed, such as reductions in tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions and an associated timeline. The agriculture sector has to meet a cut in emissions of between 22-30 per cent by 2030 and it’s not clear how the Cap, worth €9.8 billion will help the sector achieve this target.”
Irish hedgerows are being removed at a rate of up to 6,000km a year, Dr Alan Moore of Hedgerows Ireland told the committee. This was a consequence of failing to value and protect them – as well as inadequate rewards for farmers who look after them, he said.
“Because of the way they are managed, remaining hedgerows are often in poor condition and not providing the multiple benefits that they could be,” Dr Moore added.
Good quality hedgerows do vital things, he said, including carbon sequestration; an increasingly important role in flood control; water quality and soil improvement; shelter, shade, and disease control. They also acted as a biodiversity sanctuary and provide landscape definition; “literally how our countryside looks”.
Early results from Teagasc’s farm-carbon hedgerow project show 600,000 tonnes of carbon were stored by Irish hedgerows but this could potentially be a million tonnes, Dr Moore predicted.
“The higher figures are directly related to good management methods and the avoidance for example of severe or excessive cutting, and of course stopping further removal,” he pointed out.
Two thirds of our native birds either feed or nest or both in hedgerows and they are home to over 600 of our 800 flowering plants. “Because of our very low forest cover (11 per cent compared to the European average of 40 per cent) hedges play a correspondingly far greater role in our biodiversity,” he said.
Where landowners plan to remove more than 500 metres of hedgerow they are supposed to apply to the Department of Agriculture under Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) regulations. "In practice 95 per cent of these applications are given the go ahead, and in a recent study no environmental assessments were carried out in the five-year study period," Dr Moore underlined.
Hedgerows Ireland called for legislation to be strengthened and for an urgent review of how EIA regulations are being implemented. New Cap schemes should recognise and reward good hedgerow management, it said.