Goodbye to the Hills

Mar 26

Goodbye to the Hills

Pádraic Fogarty 26th March 2023

At a conference in Galway dedicated to the management of Ireland’s uplands regions, speaker after speaker raised concerns about the ecological degradation caused by over-grazing, the low returns for farmers on their sheep as well as the need for diversification and more native woodland in the face of pressures from wind developments and monoculture forestry. “If 125,000 hectares of our uplands are planted in the next five years then it will be ‘Goodbye to the Hills’ for many of our upland dwellers and for their descendants” said one farmer representative. “A significant part of our native flora and fauna will also disappear along with complete habitats”, he added.

Submissions to a proposed Land Use Policy were accompanied by calls from farmers for a ‘level playing pitch’ and perhaps held out hope for a more integrated approach to protecting the unique natural, cultural and heritage value of the upland landscape. It all sounds so familiar.

The year was 1995. Nearly 30 years on, it’s tempting to think nothing has changed but in fact the speaker from the United Farmers Association would be proved to be correct: a significant part of our native flora and fauna has disappeared, along with complete habitats. The problem of devasting fires, something that has been routine in my time as campaign officer with the Irish Wildlife Trust since the late 2000s, if it existed in the 1990s, was not considered a problem worthy of mention at our Galway gathering.

The harm to hillsides from overloading by sheep was widely recognised at this time. Farmers, having been paid to put the sheep out on hills with EU grants, were by then being paid to take them off again. Regrowing vegetation, even where this did occur, fell foul of farm payment eligibility rules, and so most of our hillsides have been burnt to the ground at least once in the last decade. The stands of Sitka spruce and lodgepole pine, the planting of which reached record levels in the late 90s still blight the upland landscape, every day spewing out carbon from drained peat, and are still being replanted with another generation of softwood trees.

However, despite the enormous damage that has been done, our uplands remain of vital importance. Not least as they are incredibly carbon rich and the source of water for rivers that ultimately ends up for human consumption. But there is also stunning potential for rewilding and ecological restoration with accompanying amenity and economic opportunity.

But they are difficult places to manage from a policy perspective and have been effectively ignored by Teagasc, which has been preoccupied this last decade promoting dairy expansion. Many uplands are within designated areas for nature conservation, but these have no plans for action and, with a few exceptions, still have no programmes to incentivise farmers to move to more nature-friendly practices. Many are in commonage ownership, covering roughly 440,000 hectares with substantial proportions in counties such as Donegal, Galway, Wicklow and Kerry.

A significant problem has, and continues to be, the lack of agreed management structures for these commonages. Even where there have been attempts to incentivise farmers using dedicated schemes, such as the SUAS programme in Wicklow, farmers can only be cajoled to take part. Many farmers, for whatever reason, choose not to participate.

Unlike enclosed land where a farmer can take full responsibility for actions or inactions, on the commonages the worthy efforts of those willing to take part in schemes can be undone, or undermined, by those who aren’t. We’ve seen this every year on Mount Leinster, on the Carlow/Wexford boundary, which can be relied on to go on fire even though it has been part of a European Innovation Project (the Blackstairs Farming Futures) designed for, and by, local farmers.

There’s also an issue of what the Department of Agriculture refers to as ‘dormancy’. This is where farmers with a commonage share have abandoned the land. Figures from 2014 show that Wicklow has one of the highest levels of dormancy, with nearly half of shareholders not claiming from the department, and a national average of 37%. It’s probably reasonable to assume that this figure has increased in the last decade, with an aging farmer population and ever decreasing financial returns on sheep.

The latest round of the Common Agriculture Policy is now up and running and has special measures for commonages, referring to them as ‘priority environmental assets’. However, it is not clear how plans for commonages are to be formulated or what mechanisms are available to ensure agreement will be found to implement plans among the commonage owners.

New rules around the eligibility for farm payments are also in place that allow for 50% of a land parcel to be claimed even if it is scrub, bushes or leggy heather and this also apply to commonages. The rules even allow for 100% of a parcel to be eligible with no grazing animals or traditional farm activity if a plan is in place for reaching climate or biodiversity goals. This is very welcome although it will take time for word to percolate to farmers on the ground.

It still leaves us with a problem of coordinating management actions, such as rewilding bogs and forests, or sensitive grazing regimes with cattle, when perhaps half the farmers have walked away from the commonage and half of those who remain are not willing or interested in a joint approach.

In 1995, at the Galway conference, the United Farmers Association entitled its presentation “where are we going?” 27 years on, we still don’t have an answer to that question. But we can’t wait for another generation when we have pressing climate and biodiversity targets that must be reached by the end of this decade. And we can’t reach them without commonage land being fully mobilised as part of landscape scale restoration efforts.

It’s time for the State to start buying commonages to bring them into public ownership. Commonages should become Statutory Nature Reserves that are manged by local people and those with grazing rights. Farmers who are willing to take part in schemes should continue to be supported in moving to sensitive grazing regimes that don’t include burning the land, but we cannot afford the recalcitrance of others, who may well be happy to be bought out in any case. Michael Martin recently said that the State should be in the business of buying land for “simple rewilding at its most basic because the biodiversity challenge is so crucial” and this should be targeted at those areas with the greatest biodiversity potential, and where incentives for private involvement are likely to have least impact.

Commonages are too big to continue to fail – whether that’s socially, economically or environmentally. They need to be part of the solution to our land use crisis and buying them out so they would genuinely work for the common good is, to my mind, the only way forward.