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Enhancing and protecting biodiversity on Irish farms

Farmers, the stewards of our land, are managing their holdings in ways that foster and maintain wildlife

The climate and biodiversity crises have turned a sharp spotlight on intensive farming practices that have aggravated water pollution and the stark decline in birds, insects and wild plants native to the Irish landscape.

The high level of methane emitted from grass-fed cattle has also led to calls to reduce herd numbers so that Ireland can reach its greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets.

But there is another side to Irish farming that often attracts less attention. In the last 10 years or so, more and more farmers have been managing their farms in ways designed to encourage and maintain wildlife on their land.

The next required step – according to farmers – involves acknowledging, both financially and culturally, these so-called ecosystem services that enhance biodiversity, reduce the risk of flooding, protect water courses and increase the natural and cultural heritage of their areas.


The Leitrim Sustainable Agricultural Group supports farmers to continue to farm their biodiversity-rich lands while protecting, enhancing and restoring habitats.

Project manager Owen Carton says that the concept of multifunctional farming is appropriate.

“Each hectare of land in Leitrim can generate a range of outputs – from traditional drystock farming to ecosystem services - and the aim is for the farmer to be paid for all these outputs,” he explains.

The group, which is supported by Leitrim County Council, is encouraging farmers to embrace the new Agri-Climate Rural Environment Scheme (ACRES), which will be the first scheme to offer farmers payments based on the quality of the habitats on their land.

“We are keen to develop farmer skills in environmental goods and services such as keeping quality hedgerows, maintaining habitats for birds such as red grouse, and developing walking trails, so we can identify opportunities for funding,” explains Carton, who also believes that rural communities can benefit from new farm-based tourism initiatives.

Gerry McGourty is a drystock farmer in County Leitrim who lives close to Lough Allen. “Our hedgerows and waterways are relatively clean, and farmers need to get rewarded for this,” he says.

Louise Duigan, who has recently moved to Louisburgh in County Mayo and has previously studied high nature value farming on the Aran Islands, believes farmers can play a big role as caretakers of our collective heritage. She says that Louisburgh-Killeen Heritage is actively encouraging farmers to identify habitats on their land. “We have a local walking group and we plan to create a booklet highlighting the flora and fauna on farmland,” she explains.

“Farmers are stewards of the land, and our centre is a focal point in the county for all things environmental”

Mary O’Malley, who is also involved in the Louisburgh-Killeen Heritage, says that many of the small farmers in the area have an intuitive knowledge of managing nature on their land handed down through the generations.

“My grandparents grew rush that they collected for thatching, and they used nettles to make soup,” explains O’Malley. “We want to record the older farmers’ knowledge of natural botanicals so we can share it with people we take on walks.”

She says that there is a wealth of knowledge in the community and that she is particularly inspired by all the work being done in Mayo, Galway and Donegal to restore habitats for corncrakes and bumblebees.

Meanwhile, the LIVE project on the Iveragh peninsula in County Kerry has teamed up with farmers from Kerry Social Farming to highlight how farming practices there can actually support biodiversity.

“The Iveragh peninsula is a mountainous region with 200km of coastline,” explains Fiach Byrne, zoologist with the LIVE project. “This wet, rocky landscape doesn’t suit dairy farming or crop farming so there are mainly beef and sheep farmers here.”

Byrne has been carrying out surveys on the bumblebees, butterflies and birds that depend on Iveragh farmland practices. About 90 have been identified, including many that are red-listed.

“We have found two species of ground-nesting birds: skylarks, which are amber-listed (of medium conservation concern), and meadow pipits, which are red-listed (of high conservation concern),” notes Byrne. “The low-intensive grazing practices of these farmers helps maintain the mosaic of vegetation that suits these ground-nesting birds.” The endangered wall butterfly has also been found in the area.

Luke Myers, who is managing the biodiversity elements of Kerry Social Farming for 2022, says that groups of farmers and social farming participants (people with mental health difficulties, physical or intellectual disabilities) have come together in meitheals to manage invasive species on local farms. There are also plans to train people to develop ponds, put up bird and bat boxes and manage hedgerows on their farms. “We’d love to implement more of these meitheals in the coming years,” says Myers.

“We want to record the older farmers’ knowledge of natural botanicals so we can share it with people we take on walks”

The Cabragh Wetlands Trust near Thurles in County Tipperary saved a vast area of wetlands habitats from destruction after the Thurles Sugar Factory filled in settling pools during its closure in the early 1990s.

The Trust now owns about 80 acres of the lands and leases another 20 acres next to the filled-in lagoons. There are 15 different habitats, including ponds, reed swamps, hedgerows, streams and wildflower meadows.

Volunteers have installed footpaths, bird hides and raised walkways for visitors to observe the wildlife, which includes grey herons, dragonflies, hummingbird hawk moths, wildflowers and grasses, and, in particular, the migratory birds when they arrive in the autumn months.

“There are about 2,000 waders, birds that arrive, and we do conservation work to maximise the biodiversity,” explains Michael Long, co-chair of the Cabragh Wetlands Trust.

The voluntary organisation hopes to improve an area for ground-nesting birds with the support of the Heritage Council. They also have ambitious plans to mount a permanent exhibition on climate action and wetlands preservation in their centre.

“We are very strong on what we call earth literacy, which gives value to how we interact with, appreciate and respect the world,” adds Long.

There are also plans to work with small farmers in the area to help them identify what actions they can take to contribute to climate action.

“Farmers are the stewards of the land, and our centre is a focal point in the county for all things environmental,” says Long. “It is a place where people can come to be in nature.”

louisburgh-killeenheritage.org; cabraghwetlands.ie; kerrysocialfarming.ie