A model of conservation in the Burren
Principles of farmer-led biodiversity project should be applied far more widely
The BurrenLife Farming for Conservation Programme has received a high accolade as joint winner of the EU Life award for excellence in nature and biodiversity. EU Life is the union’s funding instrument for environment and climate action. An expert panel shortlisted the Burren programme and a Europe-wide public vote put it in first place.
There are two distinctive features about this project, still thriving seven years after its Life funding ended. First, it is farmer-led. It was born out of the frustration of people such as local Irish Farmers Association member Michael Davoren with what they regarded as red tape in the EU Habitats and Birds Directives. Instead of simply rejecting these regulations, they sought advice from Teagasc and the National Parks and Wildlife Service on how they might marry conservation with the need to make a living. Like most Irish farmers, they have no desire to degrade their local landscapes.
The state agencies put them in touch with an innovative agricultural post-graduate, Brendan Dunford. Together they developed the programme’s second distinctive feature as an agri-environmental scheme: its emphasis on outputs, not prohibitions. As Davoren told a Dáil committee, they learned to produce good quality landscapes much as they had always produced good quality cattle: “The environmentalists will state what we need to protect, and the farmers will decide how it can be protected”.
The outcome has been a welcome return to floral diversity in this iconic region, benefitting tourism and sustaining a vibrant and dynamic local community at a time when so many rural areas are in chronic decline. The Burren Programme now has a few offshoots elsewhere. But the best way to celebrate its EU award would be to recognise it as a national champion and apply its principles far more widely to our agricultural production. This would give real substance to the much-hyped marketing claims, often demonstrably false, that Irish agriculture is environmentally friendly.