Walking through a field of wildflowers and tall grass isn’t a typical dairy farm experience, but it’s how Michael Keane has always managed his Limerick land.
The only difference is that now Michael is paid for it under the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) farm plan program.
“There was a time when councilors would destroy what we had here and tell us to reseed with ryegrass,” Michael told a group of farmers visiting his farm.
“Now we are being rewarded for it and we have species of grass and wildlife here that usually only appear in the Burren in Co Clare.”
The farm plan program has been in place since 2006 and Barry O’Donoghue, agroecology manager at the NPWS, told farmers the aim is to tailor a plan to suit each farm.
“The program is completely farmer-driven and payments are results-based,” Barry said.
“An advisor can suggest certain actions that a farmer might take, but we really want the farmer to come up with ideas or projects that suit their individual farm.
“We want to help farmers create little beacons for nature across the country.”
Farms can take a range of actions from pasture management plans and planting new hedgerows to building ponds and installing nesting boxes for specific breeds of birds in an area, such as swifts, owls or kestrels.
Farmers can also choose the fields in which to undertake measurements.
Scheme contracts run for five years and the maximum payment is €10,000 per farmer per year.
While the plans focus on special areas of conservation and certain endangered wildlife species, there is an NPWS agricultural plan in every county in the country.
Due to funding limitations, only 100 farmers per year are accepted into the program. And since the NPWS is under the Ministry of Housing, not the Ministry of Agriculture, few farmers know about it.
There is also a downside for some farmers because the scheme is hit with a double funding rule. For example, GLAS farmers using low-input permanent pasture would not be paid a second time for land in a low-input pasture plan under the NPWS Farm Plan.
Barry hails from a farm in Kerry and is acutely aware of the many challenges faced by farmers in the field.
It encourages communication between groups of farmers in the scheme, and WhatsApp groups have been formed to share tips on everything from pond digging to otter building, with one group coming together to buy native blanket.
A sense of meithal and community permeates the walk on the farm, with discussions moving from silage making to seed saving.
“When you’re together you can see that you’re part of a bigger whole and there are a lot of farmers looking to manage nature and support biodiversity, so you feel like you’re not just on your own little patch, but contributing to a larger movement,” Barry said.
Barry is keen to show farmers which practices receive good scores and the logic behind scoring out of 10.
Although there has been much discussion in the media about reseeding, the goal of the NPWS Farm Plan is to provide a balance between nature and farming, where both parties benefit.
As part of the farm walk, NPWS grassland ecologist Maria Long came to mark the fields of Michael and his brother Tom – Tom is also in the plan and his farm sits alongside his brother’s.
“There may be people who think that people who care about nature conservation want farmers to stop farming,” Maria said.
“It absolutely isn’t – I’d be broke as a prairie environmentalist! We absolutely need farmers on farmland, and it has to make sense to them, so it’s just a matter of choosing what’s appropriate in terms of grassland management.
“The beauty of the farm plan program is that it’s so personalized. We ask farmers what their constraints might be, for example if they are older or if they have no stock.
“It’s about solving problems at the individual level and then doing our best to help farmers improve habitats.”
Maria and Barry level the fields of the two farms. Tom had a number of sick calves so had to sacrifice a field near the house to watch over them.
Although this results in a lower score, the NPWS team are keen to discuss the matter with Tom, and other farmers in the group are eager to help, resulting in a brainstorming session for rotations. grazing in early spring.
Barry hopes the program approach can be expanded in the future.
“There have been many calls for the program to be expanded,” he said.
“This is something our ministry supports, as the program has been seen as a success for nature.
“We have found that we need a strong advisory support system and tailored plans for farmers.
“Sometimes a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work and farmers know that every field is different, with its own problems and solutions.
“We’re going to keep trying to make sure we can provide that for them.”
Examples of what farmers are doing in the NPWS program
Mossie Lawlor, Banna, County Kerry
Land abandonment was a big problem for Mossie when he returned home to take over the family farm.
His NPWS farm plan balances livestock management of grazing in a special conservation area near a lake, ensuring the land is neither undergrazed nor overgrazed.
Barry O’Donoghue of the NPWS says this form of grazing is vital for ensuring that light reaches plants on the ground, so that species-rich plant life has a chance to thrive.
Mossie also has high quality arable land where the plan is to create a number of small scale ponds and native hedgerows.
Michael and Tom Keane, Aughinish, County Limerick
Brothers Michael and Tom operate a farm in a species-rich area of the Shannon Estuary. Many species seen in their traditional hay meadows and across their fields are found in the Burren in Co Clare.
Michael has one side of the farm where he milks a herd of organic dairy cows, and Tom has sucklers and sheep on the other side.
As well as managing the grasslands, the couple have also been involved in the restoration of the Irish Droimeann cattle herd.
Niall Fitzgerald, Ballybunion, County Kerry
Niall works to restore nature on five acres that have been very intensively farmed and heavily plowed over the years.
He set up a mix of habitats, from wild grasslands to ponds, wild bird cover and a wooded strip.
He has a real passion for saving local seeds – he propagates wild flower and plant seeds he finds in native Irish hedgerows and plants them on his own land.
NPWS’ Barry says the difference in the work Niall is undertaking can already be seen in the short time he has been on the program.
Brendan Lawlor, Beal, County Kerry
Farming by the sea comes with some challenges, and for Brendan, it’s about managing the dunes of the coastal grasslands.
He uses traditional winter grazing methods to manage the grass on the dunes.
Barry says it cleans up the dry “thatch” style grass during the winter, and the cattle on Brendan’s farm thrive on the mix of weeds and grasses.
The cattle are removed in the spring and the place is left to nature.
Because the old grass has been cleared, the light can hit the ground and encourage fresh vegetation to grow. Barry says that as a result, skylarks in the area are “thriving”.