When farming meets conservation

An ‘ecological apartheid’ appears to divide farmers and environmentalists, yet they share many goals. A new series explores how the two groups can work together to tackle climate change, for the benefit of all


‘No farmer I’ve ever met,” says Keith Bradby, “drives around on his tractor all day thinking: ‘How can I rape this environment a bit more?’”

In the 1980s, Bradby was often in bitter confrontation with farmers in his native Australia. He was one of the leading voices opposing the further extension of agriculture into an internationally recognised biodiversity hot spot around the southwestern wheatbelt. “Many farmers thought I was the devil incarnate,” he recalls wryly.

Today, as the co-ordinator of the Gondwana Link, a project that aims to restore the environmental health of a region much bigger than Ireland, Bradby works alongside farmers amicably on a daily basis, in pursuit of common, agreed goals.

1logical apartheid” that rigidly divides landscapes into developed/productive areas and preserved/unproductive areas.

Instead Bradby envisages a mosaic where natural communities can flourish amid appropriately regulated agricultural production. He finds that many farmers passionately cherish the return of wildlife and wild flowers to their land. They often know rather more about the local environment than he does, though they perhaps express their passion and their knowledge in ways a conservationist will not always immediately recognise.

Bradby’s story has far more echoes in Ireland than you might think; the assumption that farmers and environmentalists have irreversibly opposed interests still has a harmful grip on our national discourse.

However, there are already numerous projects, mostly small scale, where promising synergies between farming and a healthy environment are being achieved. But they are still not getting proper recognition from policymakers and generally have low public profiles (see panel).

This article, and the two that follow on Monday and Tuesday, will explore the ways in which conservation and agriculture are intimately linked, and suggest ways in which environmentalists and farmers may work together to produce healthier landscapes that benefit all our citizens.


Accelerating climate change

The challenges are often daunting, especially in the context of accelerating climate change, in which current agricultural practices are a major factor. But the rewards of re

imagining our society’s relationship with food production and food producers will be rich indeed.

The history of nature conservation in Ireland, however, has offered unfortunate hostages to fortune, creating a general perception of an inevitable agriculture v environment stand-off.

For a start, our first natural scientists and conservationists were generally associated with the Anglo-Irish landlord class. This was inevitable, given the poverty and other preoccupations of the rest of the population.

But the upshot was a strong underlying sense, in independent Ireland, that conservation was not part of a nationally-minded person’s proper mental furniture. Even today the environment is sometimes seen as the last cudgel with which the relics of auld dacency, and their liberal urban equivalents, can beat the hard-working sons and daughters of the soil.

Ironies abound here: few of the big landlords cared about conserving anything but their grouse and pheasants. Their gamekeeping practices were a key factor in the extirpation of keystone predators such as golden eagles and pine martens. They introduced the sika deer, the grey squirrel and the rhododendron, all of which have played havoc with native species.

And in the meantime, countless people from other backgrounds, including farmers, have become the backbone of our conservation movement.

Cherishing our natural heritage should surely be considered as patriotic a principle as cherishing our cultural heritage. But, unfortunately, contemporary history has reinforced the idea that conservation isn’t part of what we are.

Most contemporary Irish conservation legislation has come through directives from Brussels. This top-down approach has engaged far too little with the local communities that such laws most directly affect.

If the first thing a farmer learns about the designation of a special area of conservation is a letter from a distant bureaucrat, listing the things he or she suddenly cannot do on their own land, this perfectly fits the plotline of conservation as an alien and negative imposition.

That script has been played out, with depressing regularity and serious damage to our landscapes, in the overheated conflicts over the management of our bogs and uplands in recent years.


EU directives

Perhaps, too, some conservation organisations have failed to see the danger in over-reliance on European Union directives. A minority of environmentalists still find it easier to portray conservation-wary farmers as motivated by greed or ignorance than to discuss their concerns head

to head.

But a moment’s thought should remind us that farming is one of humanity’s most intimate forms of engagement with nature. Good farmers have always had a big stake in conservation, though that is not the word that might spring to their lips. Without fertile soil, potable water and clean air there is no sustainable agricultural production.

Early farmers learned that the bounty of nature dries up very quickly if we do not give the land a chance to recover from cultivation or if we permit overgrazing.

The importance of fallowing – allowing native plants to return to croplands in a regular cycle, to restore the natural fertility of soil exhausted by cultivation – has been recognised across the globe. It predates, by about 5,000 years, the ecological restoration advocated by some of today’s leading environmentalists.

Whenever farmers have forgotten or ignored this lesson, the results have been ecologically and socially catastrophic. The dustbowl years in the United States are just one example.

However, the introduction of mechanisation and artificial fertilisers has radically changed and extended the environmental impacts of agriculture over the last century, and our society is only beginning to grasp how high the price may be for failing to take natural dynamics into account in our food production policy.

And before we have worked out how to manage these impacts on our national landscapes, we are finding that the repercussions are planetary in scale. A hundred more cows belching in Meath, a hundred more acres of degraded bog in Mayo, a hundred more tons of nitrates seeping into our rivers may not seem to matter very much. But they are all contributing to an accelerating cycle of global climate change that will, if unchecked, incur massive social, environmental and economic costs, for which no one is currently being held adequately accountable.

So the need to reimagine our whole agricultural system has become extremely urgent. Yet the policies still emanating from Brussels and Dublin not only envisage agribusiness more or less as usual, they envisage a lot more of the same agribusiness than used to be usual.

The Food Harvest 2020 strategy proposed a 33 per cent increase in agricultural output over 10 years. Its successor, FoodWise 2025, envisages an 85 per cent growth in the value of our agricultural exports.

There is now a much greater effort than previously, it is true, to persuade us to view these targets through a “green” lens, a nod to the greatly increased public anxiety about the environment in general, and about climate change in particular.

But while there are positive elements in, for example, Bord Bia’s Origin Green initiative, it is disturbing that the food industry is still more focused on eco-branding than on the rigorous ecological and economic measurement of the impacts of our agricultural policies.

There is nothing easy about the debates that need to be had. It involves painful choices for every one of us. To paraphrase Trotsky on war, you may not be interested in agriculture but agriculture is interested in you. What is grown down on the farm ends up on your fork and affects your life in many other ways.

Conversely, what you choose to put on your fork affects what farmers will grow in future. By eating less beef and dairy and more vegetables and fruit, for example, we can collectively influence agricultural production towards sustainability.

But reimagining our agriculture will take more than the sum of well-informed individual choices. It will require us to challenge two blights that currently dominate our national life.


Garrotted with red tape 

One is the perverse application of regulation. Small businesses are often garrotted with red tape while bankers and developers ride roughshod over the few regulations that are supposed to stop them wrecking our economy.

Likewise, small farmers are overwhelmed with regulations, often contradictory, regarding conservation and EU payments, while agri-industry has far more leeway despite having much greater environmental impact. We need to rebalance our regulations so that they are both simpler and more equably implemented across all sectors.

The other blight is the chronic devaluation of the ideals of the common good and the public sphere. The ideological crusade begun by Thatcher and Reagan still dominates most national and international policies today, despite its appalling consequences in the 2008 financial crisis.

But the big idea that inspired the science of ecology, that everything in the world is connected, applies equally accurately to economic and societal relationships.

Concern for the common good has a deep history in our countryside, epitomised by the co-operative tradition of meitheal at harvest time. And farmers have always known that what they do on their land affects the neighbours. Most are happy to make some effort to avoid causing any damage to the people next door.

But industrial agriculture creates impacts much further afield. While the damage may be drastic it may not be at all obvious to the individual farmer. Our national agencies must urgently develop an economic model of natural capital accounting to measure the costs and benefits of such long-range impacts accurately, and tailor national policies accordingly.

Conversely, if conservationists and society at large want to see conservation plans working well on uplands or raised bogs, or indeed on highly productive agricultural land, they must be aware of the consequences these measures have on farmers’ lives and incomes.

Our society must engage in discussions of the specifics at local level and reward farmers appropriately for their increasingly important role as responsible and proactive stewards of our landscapes and, ultimately, our national wellbeing.

Building a new and positive relationship between agriculture and the environment will undoubtedly be very difficult but it is possible, desirable and, in the shadow of climate change, urgently necessary.

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


Growth area: farmers working with environmentalists

Seven projects in which farmers, rural communities and environmentalists work together:

The Burren Life Project An award-winning, farmer-led scheme that rewards the production of high-nature-value (HNV) landscapes. See also next article in this series. http://burrenlife.com

StreamScapes A 25-year-old education and outreach project, run by Coomhola Salmon Trust of west Cork, offering innovative programmes to engage community participation in the design and implementation of conservation projects throughout Ireland. streamscapes.ie

Anne Valley Sixteen farmers in this small Waterford catchment (above) have embraced Rory Harrington’s proposal to use integrated constructed wetlands (ICW) to treat farmyard soiled waters and field runoff, coincidentally reanimating the broader ecological quality of the whole valley. http://iti.ms/1Fwg5oV Biodiversity from the ground up Environmental consultant Janice Fuller helps communities develop locally-relevant biodiversity plans, based on what people value most in their own landscapes. janicefuller.com

Duhallow IRD Life Projects This integrated rural development (IRD) programme has many admirable facets, among them a completed EU Life programme to enhance pearl mussel habitat, and a new one to enhance hen harrier habitat. Both are based on very active collaboration with the farming community. duhallowlife.com/blog

Fingal grey partridge reintroduction A small extra space for wildflowers on field borders, on intensive cereal farms, provides vital habitat for an almost extinct farmland species, and unexpected economic benefits. http://iti.ms/1LPXpNW

Golden Eagle Trust This project, bringing bring back eagles and kites to our skies, has run into some local opposition but has also engendered some remarkable co-operation between farmers, local communities and project workers, especially in Donegal and Wicklow. goldeneagletrust.org


Seven steps towards a happier marriage between agriculture and environment:

1. Recognise in national policy that a healthy, diverse, productive environment is a priority public good, a prerequisite for all agricultural production and for the prosperity and wellbeing of our whole society.

2. Make environmental regulation transparent, consistent, and fair across all sectors

3. Urgently develop national capital accounting as a common currency and language to understand and measure all environmental costs and benefits, enabling meaningful communication on environmental actions between different policy sectors and departments, replacing silo thinking with joined-up thinking.

4. Consult farmers and rural communities during the development and rollout of environmental regulation, and empower the local leadership of conservation initiatives.

5. Respect local knowledge and traditions in implementing these initiatives, while protecting society as a whole from downstream impacts of negative environmental practices.

6. Support initiatives to keep marginal farmers on the land, through rewarding farmers who produce healthy environments that benefit us all, based on measurable environmental outcomes rather than on box-ticking actions.

7. Communicate the urgency of the threat from climate change, and respond to it decisively by rapidly reducing the emission of greenhouse gases by all sectors, including agriculture.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection


Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.