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How a Young Ecologist is Changing the Fortunes of Irish Farmers

Image by Duane Retzlaff from Pixabay

Agriculture is a critical part of the economy of Ireland.  In 2019 exports from the sector were worth  €14.5 billion . However, the sector is facing a number of threats  from Brexit, COVID-19, rural decline and rising energy costs. However there’s one threat which has been around for a couple of decades that is, perhaps, more important than all the others combined  – environmental degradation.  However a young ecologist may have found a solution that works for farmers and the environment.

Back in the 1990s, Ireland’s farmers were facing a crisis. The perverse nature of European farming subsidies was forcing farmers to choose between going big, or quitting entirely and, to many, the latter seemed like a more attractive option. For those who stayed on the land, like farmer Michael Davoren, the way the subsidies worked forced him to put increased production ahead of the detrimental effects this might have on the environment. “The more animals I kept, the more money I got,” he told The Guardian. “I put more cattle out, bought fertiliser, made silage. Slurry run-off was killing fish. But if I kept fewer animals I’d be penalised 10% of my subsidy.”

Natural flora and fauna has returned to Burren. Source: Burren Programme Facebook

The Davorens have worked the hills in Burren, County Clare on the west coast of Ireland for over 400 years. Michael felt he couldn’t give up his 80-hectare farm since it was not just his career, but it was his family’s legacy that was at stake. However, the intensive farming system he and other farmers were being forced to adopt was causing serious long-term damage to the landscape that was evident, not just to the farmers but to area’s residents. A 2007 report by the Irish Times found that 36% of residents of Burren found farming to be damaging to the environment. The species-rich habitat that transforms into an explosion of colour every spring was dying. “Everyone thought the best thing for the Burren was to close the gates, get rid of the farmers and let nature look after itself,” says Davoren.

A New Perspective

In 1999, a young ecologist called Brendan Dunford arrived in the area to do research for his PhD on farming. He quickly saw that the local environment was in serious trouble, even dying, and he decided to do something about it. He realised that the key to solving the problem was to focus on the economic model that underpinned the damaging farming practices. “It was economically successful for farmers. They were grant-aided to turn ‘bad’ land into ‘good’,” Dunford said. “They were trying to make a living. It was a big moment for me – I figured that unless I came back with a better financial proposition, with the conviction that this is the right thing to do, then I was at nothing.”

Brendon Dunford, an ecologist who founded the Burren Programme. Source: Learn From Leaders

So Dunford tried to rethink what it meant to be a farmer and came up with a new perspective on farming practices which, not only could help the local environment but which could also work for Ireland and maybe even the EU. At the heart of this new perspective was the realisation that rather than defining farmers by how much they produce, he wanted to define them by the health and diversity of their farms. “The biggest challenge was to get them to take on a new role – to convince them they have a broader destiny than just food. And for that, they needed to be supported and paid to do it.”

Funded by the EU’s environment directorate, Dunford established a new scheme (the Burren Programme) that pays farmers for nature-filled fields and clean waterways. He took inspiration from “results-based” schemes trialled in Canada and the UK in the 1980s. These schemes paid farmers only if they made changes that resulted in positive environmental impacts. Using these trials as a starting point, Dunford created a flexible system where farmers had much more of a say in designing the goals – they were a part of the scheme from the very beginning. This allowed the Burren Programme to constantly adapt to the needs of their partners – the farmers and the environment – as required. In fact, many of the ideas have been taken up by the “public money for public goods” idea, which the UK has made a central part of its post-Brexit vision for farming. 

The Burren Programme

Dunford’s scheme takes into account a fact that almost all agricultural policies ignore –  every farm is different. Under the programme, farmers are free to manage their land, and propose changes as they see fit. Any proposals can be undertaken as the farmer wishes, bearing in mind the farmers resources, experiences and requirements. The total effect of these proposals on the farm is then rated on a scale from zero to 10, based on a ‘habitat health’ checklist consisting of criteria like the amount of dead vegetation, the level of soil erosion and ecological integrity. All farms above that are rated above five are then eligible for payment but the higher the score the more money farmers can receive. 

HRH Prince Charles being shown around a Burren farm by Bridget Barry and Dr. Brendan Dunford. Source: Photograph by Eamon Ward from Burren Programme Facebook

The flexibility of the system allows farmers to ensure conservation is as critical as their economic output. It also helps ensure that sustainable agricultural practices aren’t an afterthought, allowing the landscape to grow and heal. 

The results are clearly visible- today the uplands have been transformed into species-rich calcareous grasslands, replete with native flowers such as O’Kelly’s spotted orchid, the perennial mountain-avens and the rare lesser twayblade orchid. Recent data by entomologist Dr Dara Stanley, of University College Dublin, shows that higher-scoring fields in the Burren programme have a higher species richness of bumblebees. “What they’re doing in the Burren is working,” she says.

As of 2019, a subset of 147 farms saw an increase in their score to 7.43 from 6.61 in 2010. 

Further Challenges

While the Burren Programme may have had a positive impact, it is only within a small region of Ireland. At a national level, there is still plenty of work to be done. Scientists at the National Biodiversity Data Centre believe that a third of all bee species face extinction in the next 10 years in Ireland. The nation is also facing high ammonia and carbon pollution and water pollution levels. 

Perhaps one of the greatest effects of the  Burren Programme has been to highlight the failure of the European Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). In 2018, the policy came under fire for its negative impact on the environment by environmentalists. Despite a third of the £44bn scheme going towards “greening”, The Anglo-Celt newspaper found that 80% of all subsidies go to just 20% of the farmers, who tend to have the largest and most industrialised farms. 

Wildlife-friendly farming measures such as biodiversity enhancement, protecting natural resources and carbon capture allow farmers to receive “green direct payments” or “greening”. The EU made this a part of its CAP to help combat climate change and incentivise farmers to adopt more eco-friendly farming practices.

The current system rewards farmers based on land area, and some green initiatives are not rewarded. For example, in Britain, farmers can’t receive basic payments for land featuring ponds, wide hedges, salt marsh or regenerating woodland.

In 2017, The European Court of Auditors also found that  greening is “unlikely to enhance the Common Agricultural Policy’s environmental and climate-related performance significantly.” The body estimated that just 5% of all farmland within the European Union saw actual changes to farming practices as a result of the greening scheme. 

Dunford’s scheme though has become a rallying point for new agricultural practices. What started out in a remote part of Ireland, is now a template for the EU and has even influenced the UK’s post-Brexit policy. In March 2020, the British Ecological Society called for changes to the CAP EU-wide, towards a more results-based scheme like the Burren Programme. The EU’s new Food Policy, published in May 2020 also takes a leaf out of Dunford’s book, offering solutions similar to the Burren Programme. With Brexit on the horizon, Irish farmers could lose access to that policy. There is hope, however, that the UK’s agriculture bill will also adopt the results based scheme filling the gap left by the EU.

The EU has revised its CAP objectives to include more environmentally-friendly measures inspired by the Burren Programme. Source: European Commission

Looking back, Michael Davoren has acknowledged how the Burren Programme has shifted farming in the region. He told The Guardian: “Big ships are difficult to turn around and agriculture is a very big ship. But Brendan Dunford turned it around for us… In the past, the environment was a by-product. In the future, the environment is what we’ll be producing, and the food will be a by-product.”

With the entire world facing an environmental crisis like no other, there is hope that Dunford’s vision for Ireland makes its way across the globe. It could help spur a new ‘green revolution’, one where farmers don’t put profit ahead of the environment.

Based on a story at The Guardian

Sources: Burren Programme, European Commission, European Court of Auditors

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