To tackle the biodiversity, climate and farm income crises, we need to farm with nature

Time to redefine ‘land improvement’ in line with the best science

Policy decisions over the next 12 months are crucial for Ireland's rural landscapes. The development of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) Strategic Plan for Ireland presents a rare opportunity to deliver high quality food outcomes and enhance farm livelihoods while mitigating our climate and biodiversity crises - and it's one we need to grasp with both hands.

Most of our countryside is farmed, and this is where nature lives – in the fields, grasslands, hedgerows, rivers, lakes and woods that make up farming landscapes. This is also where nature is threatened: the way we farm has been found to negatively impact over 70 per cent of protected habitats.

Many of these threats are a direct result of “land improvement” that farmers have undertaken to increase their farm’s capacity to produce high value agricultural products.

But despite the intensification and increased productivity, farming families are facing an income crisis, and we see the sharp end of this in the current beef sector protests. We also see income crises on farms with high nature value and lower agricultural productivity. The abandonment or conversion of high nature value farmland to Sitka Spruce forestry plantations reduces their nature conservation value.


Along with biodiversity and farm income, the third element in the trifecta of countryside crises is climate change. As the biggest contributor to Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions, the farming sector is already being pushed hard to reduce emissions. But we also need to improve resilience to climate-related impacts.

Land improvement

The fodder crisis in 2018 was a result of an unusually cold, wet winter followed by an unusually dry summer. Weather like this is predicted to become more frequent, as are consequent impacts on farm production, and adapting to this new normal requires nature-based solutions.

This is why it is time to redefine “land improvement” in Ireland. Up to now, economic and social incentives have led to inappropriate drainage of wetlands, replacement of high nature value grasslands with low nature value monocultures that have high fertiliser inputs, and removal of hedgerows and naturally regenerated woody vegetation.

We now have a much better understanding of the scientifically supported benefits of pollinators, the carbon storage and flood mitigation value of bogs and wetlands and the pest control benefits of hedgerow dwelling birds, bats and predatory insects. True land improvement needs to be recognised as the measures that we need to take to ensure that nature continues to provide critical life support and wellbeing services, not just for now but for the future generations of farmers, and indeed all people, in Ireland.

It may come as a surprise to most people that the vast majority of funding for biodiversity in Ireland comes through the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (DAFM). Between 2010-2015 nearly 80 per cent of the finance available to invest in biodiversity was routed through DAFM, with EU funding as a critically important contributor to support EU policy objectives to protect and manage natural resources, and address climate change.

Effective use of this funding is therefore of primary importance in tackling national declines in threatened species and habitats while also ensuring that the wider landscape can continue to provide us with critical ecosystem services.

Farm payments

The EU’s CAP was originally designed to provide stability to the volatile agricultural sector and enable food security over the medium to long term. Farm payments have been a cornerstone of the policy to deliver this stability. Over time, the requirements for food security have come to include environmental sustainability, which in this context describes the ability of the land to continue to support food production over the long term. More recently still, CAP has brought in measures to protect and restore nature on farmland and enable the production of critical ecosystem services for people such as clean water, flood mitigation, pollination services, carbon storage and carbon sequestration.

Given the importance of CAP payments for supporting biodiversity, farm incomes and the transition to low emissions agriculture, it is vital to integrate these issues in Ireland’s post-2020 CAP Strategic Plan.

A group of independent ecologists, including several leading academics, have proposed six key principles supported by a scientific evidence base to do just this. The principles of CAP4Nature can be used to guide the investment that comes through CAP to ensure future agricultural policies and incentives are underpinned by healthy ecosystems and the services they provide to people, while supporting climate change transitions and farm incomes.

The six CAP4Nature principles are:

1. Farm for food security: Nature and biodiversity underpin the sustainable delivery of multiple ecosystem services that benefit people;

2. Nature has limits: Global trends indicate we are facing a mass extinction, and Ireland is similarly affected:

3. Quantity, quality & connectivity matter: Ecosystem type, condition and extent determine the services that are delivered in any one area;

4. One size CAP doesn't fit all: Targeted interventions are essential to ensure ecosystem service delivery across the Irish landscape;

5. Strengthen the links: The food system depends on links between people, producers and nature. Strengthening these links enhances benefits from nature and the reputation of Irish agricultural produce;

6. Nature needs long-term but flexible planning: Support for the natural processes that deliver beneficial ecosystem services requires long term planning.

Farming has the capacity to help solve the climate and biodiversity crises that undermine food security along with other critical life support systems. In so doing, farmers’ livelihoods can be enhanced, and by farming with nature we secure a future for our children and the landscapes on which we depend.

The reputation and marketability of agricultural produce depends on healthy, safe and environmentally sustainable production systems. CAP payments can be used to better incentivise farming that produces high quality food while enhancing habitats, sequestering carbon, improving water quality, maintaining soil health and alleviating flooding.

There is strong evidence that multiple outcomes can be achieved by farming with nature and indeed there are many examples of projects where farmers are already doing this on tillage, beef, dairy and sheep farms across Ireland. The nominees for the 2018 and 2019 Farming for Nature awards are testament to what could be achieved countrywide with the right investment strategies.

Ireland is a world leader in the design and implementation of innovative and highly effective agri-environment schemes that provide payments to farmers for biodiversity results achieved through appropriate management. Payments for effective maintenance and enhancement of ecosystems need to be made based on the best scientific evidence available, much of which is now collated on the new CAP4Nature website.There are a diversity of landscapes and farms in Ireland and one size CAP does not fit all, we need local-level solutions for landscape-level challenges. Ireland's new CAP Strategic Plan provides us with an opportunity to do just that by building on the best science and exemplary implementation available.

Yvonne Buckley is TCD professor of zoology; Dr James Moran is a lecturer in agri-environment at Galway & Mayo Institute of Technology