There's a very common notion, and a distinctly toxic one, that the relationship between farming and nature conservation in Ireland is necessarily and mutually destructive.
Farmers destroy the environment, right? And conservationists would stop farmers earning a living in order to save it? Right?
Wrong on both counts. It’s vitally important, for our small rural communities and our rich environmental heritage, to see through such stereotypes and develop a vision for profitable and co-operative stewardship of our land.
The irony is that models for such stewardship are already flourishing among us. But they still play far too small a role in shaping national agri-environmental policy. The best-known instance is the Burren Farming for Conservation Programme, which vividly demonstrates the potentially positive relationship between well-managed traditional farming and a flourishing natural environment.
The Burren's limestone landscape is world famous for its exceptional wealth in plants (orchids, gentians). It is unique in Europe because Mediterranean and Arctic-Alpine flowers can often be found side by side. Much of the area was designated as Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) following the EU Habitats Directive (1992).
Meanwhile, local farmers were finding that traditional grazing was no longer profitable and abandoning the Burren uplands. You might think that this agricultural exit from the landscape would benefit nature conservation. On the contrary, hazel scrub spread rapidly, and shaded out many of the ecosystem’s special plants. Those that survived were less accessible to nature tourists, a major source of income to the area.
Centuries of traditional grazing, it turned out, had assisted in the maintenance of the very mosaic of micro-habitats that made the Burren so precious botanically. Far from being negative for this natural environment, traditional farming was essential to it. The balance is tricky, however. Intensified grazing with fertilisers on Burren grasslands can indeed critically reduce plant diversity.
The Burren Farming for Conservation Programme, which grew out of an EU LIFE scheme, has several distinctive features well worth emulating elsewhere.
First, while the visionary agricultural adviser Brendan Dunford has always played an influential role, the project is farmer-led and developed out of local discussions. Second, it is a fruitful partnership between organisations often at loggerheads – the local farmers, the IFA, the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) and Teagasc.
Third, it focuses on outcomes rather than mandatory actions or prohibitions. That is, farmers are rewarded for results – more orchids on your land, higher payments to your bank account, to put it crudely. Expert guidance is available, but the scheme’s flexibility allows farmers to innovate, producing better results themselves.
It is obvious from this scheme, from the growing Uplands Councils movement, from the Dunhill/Annestown catchment management scheme, and from numerous individual initiatives across the country, that many farmers understand their environmental heritage very well, and cherish it. But they cannot be expected to manage it for biodiversity unless they have real input into conservation schemes, and are properly rewarded for putting them into practice.
In sharp contrast, the recent history of Irish conservation has been mostly plagued by top-down strategies and poor rewards. Directives from Brussels have generally been negatively communicated by politicians, where communicated at all. They have been implemented by an overstretched, underfunded NPWS without adequate community skills.
The first many farmers knew about the designation of their land as an SAC, or as a Special Protection Area for birds, was a bureaucratic letter telling them what not to do on their own property. Is it any wonder people have sometimes got angry?
True, populist politicians have flagrantly manipulated this anger. But it is also fed by well-grounded fears in remote rural communities. Many farmers, whose land cannot meet the super-productive (and environmentally reckless) EU Harvest 20/20 targets, feel they are being quietly abandoned by the Department of Agriculture and by sectors of the IFA. Hence the recent emergence of the Natura and Hill Farmers' Association.
There is a huge opportunity here, in a rapidly shrinking time-frame, to keep small communities alive, and restore their environments, through innovative and locally appropriate farming for conservation schemes. If we fail to seize it, we should at least have the decency to abandon our marketing claims that our food comes from an "Origin Green" landscape. Paddy Woodworth is author of Our Once and Future Planet (University of Chicago Press, 2013)