'Food will be a by-product': the Irish farmers creating nature-friendly fields

Ella McSweeney

Michael Davoren shudders when he thinks of the 1990s. He’d been in charge of his 80-hectare farm in the Burren, Co Clare, since the 1970s, and the place was in his blood. The Davorens had worked these hills for 400 years.

But growing intensification fuelled by European subsidies meant that most farmers in this part of Ireland were having to decide between getting big or getting out. Hundreds were choosing the latter.

Davoren followed the advice to specialise and chase the beef markets. “The more animals I kept, the more money I got,” he says. “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.”

The austere appearance of the Burren landscape belies its rich diversity. The thick rocks were laid down 300 million years ago when warm tropical seas covered the area, and the bodies of billions of marine creatures cascaded to the sea floor to form the Burren limestone.

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These limestone cracks are usually jammed with life. In late spring, the grey slabs are transformed into an explosion of colour as lipstick-red orchids and deep blue gentians bloom. Hovering above them, ready to feed, should be an abundance of insects.

But by the 1990s the rocky uplands, which had been farmed for 6,000 years, had been abandoned in favour of lowland fields which were now glossy with nitrogen fertiliser. The farms were clean and green, but where had the species-rich habitats gone? “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 landscape transformed

Brendan Dunford, a young ecologist, arrived in 1999 to do research for his PhD on farming. He soon recognised the changes that were exerting negative pressures on the landscape. Resilient breeds were being replaced with larger continental cattle with feed demands greater than the land could provide. Cattle slurry was seeping into underground streams causing water pollution.

“It was economically successful for farmers. They were grant-aided to turn ‘bad’ land into ‘good’,” says Dunford. “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.”

Dunford needed to radically rethink what it means to be a farmer. “What defined farmers was how much food they can produce. 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.”

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He established a pioneering scheme, funded by the EU’s environment directorate, that pays farmers for nature-filled fields and clean waterways. He’s been at the vanguard of the once radical idea of “public money for public goods”. Instead of giving farmers money for the amount of land they own, or the quantity of food they produce, they are rewarded for producing healthy, diverse fields.

Dunford steered clear of paying farmers for taking actions regardless of their impacts – the standard way that farm subsidies are doled out. Instead, he took inspiration from “results-based” agri-environment schemes that had been trialled in Canada and the UK in the 1980s. Farmers would be paid if their practices resulted in positive environmental outcomes.

It’s an approach that acknowledges what farmers know, but large-scale agricultural policies ignore: every field is different. Their lands are scored on a scale of zero to 10; healthier, nature-filled fields score higher and attract larger payments.

Fifteen years on, with 328 farmers signed up, the Burren has been reshaped. Dunford’s project has reinvigorated the close relationship between farmers and their hilly fields. Farmers have rejuvenated an ancient tradition called “winterage”, where cattle spend the cold months on the uplands. They graze down the tough, hardy grasses which provides space for rare flowers in spring; here the limestone slabs act as giant hot-water bottles, slowly dissipating the summer heat stored in the rocks. It has transformed parts of the uplands 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.

Life attracts life; each summer, butterflies such as the pearl-bordered fritillary and the brown hairstreak can be seen in the fields, and it’s now not uncommon to hear the distinctive soprano buzz of the shrill carder bee. 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.

Ireland’s environmental crisis

The Burren scheme is no panacea. It’s not easy to convince younger generations of farmers to resist the temptations – and salaries – of urban life. Dunford’s current budget to pay them for nature – on average they get about £6,000 a year – isn’t enough to keep them all on the land. Many of Ireland’s cattle end their lives in large-scale feedlots – a growing feature of the country’s industrialised agrifood sector – to be fattened up before slaughter and export, mainly to the UK.

Big ships are difficult to turn around and agriculture is a very big ship

Michael Davoren, farmer

But morale among farmers in the Burren is high and their environment is in remarkable shape. This sets it firmly apart from the majority of Irish farmland. Nature in Ireland is facing “acute problems”, says Dr Liam Lysaght, of the National Biodiversity Data Centre, whose scientists predict that a third of all bee species in the country face extinction within the next 10 years. Ireland wrestles with high carbon emissions, ammonia levels and water pollution.

It also comes at a crucial time for the £44bn European Common Agricultural Policy. A third of the budget goes to so-called “greening measures”, designed to enhance nature and reduce emissions, but these have been a dismal failure. In March, a group of European scientists called for a radical change to farm subsidies, arguing that the fund must be used to pay farmers for public goods, and that results-based schemes should be part of this reform. Meanwhile, the EU’s new food policy, which was published last month, is rooted in the kind of ecological-based farming systems that Dunford’s model has pioneered. The Burren could serve as a regional template of farming for the future.

Public money for public goods is the basis of the UK’s proposed replacement for EU farm subsidies. A report published last October by Natural England said that a pilot results-based project in the Yorkshire Dales was beneficial to wildlife and had enthusiastic buy-in from the farmers.

For Michael Davoren, farming today couldn’t be more different from the dark days. “Big ships are difficult to turn around and agriculture is a very big ship. But Brendan Dunford turned it around for us,” he says. “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.”

Dunford’s guiding philosophy – that we need more farming, not less – overturns the view held by some that the only hope for nature is to erase humans from the picture and leave the land alone. He listened to farmers, and found a way to entice them towards a new destiny: one that is full of life.