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Thursday 2 February 2023 Dublin: 10°C
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A win for farming, a win for nature: scheming for sustainability
Farm subsidies to protect biodiversity need to be channelled into results-led projects.

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“It’s quite special,” says cattle farmer Nia O’Malley of the 60 hectares of the Slieve Aughty mountain range in Co Galway where her family has acted as custodian over several generations.

It’s special, not just in the way it differs from farming on “good agricultural land” in the lowlands of Moyglass just a few miles away, but also for the range of nature at her doorstep. 

“We’ve always had the likes of hen harrier, grouse, curlew, snipe. They’ve always been around here and the cuckoo – that’s a springtime sound every year,” she said. “It’s just normal for us to hear them.”

It was worrying then, for O’Malley, to learn that these species are in decline, with the hen harrier population falling off a cliff in the Slieve Aughties, large parts of which are designated to protect the species. “It’s just frightening to think that in a couple years, they mightn’t be there.”

Her concern played a big role in her decision to join the Hen Harrier Project set up to financially reward farmers based on the results they achieve from taking action on their farms to help the species and the habitats on which they depend.

The €25m project has proved a popular scheme since things kicked off in 2018. Today, over 1,600 farmers are involved, covering around 40% – almost 37,000 hectares – to date.

What pushed O’Malley to join was the passion of the project team, combined with the fact that farmers were educated in the reasons for protecting nature, rather than just being prescribed actions to carry out for a lump sum payment, as under previous schemes.

“There is an education involved,” says O’Malley. “So you were told you shouldn’t top your swards until after July and you were given a reason why – ‘because of the nesting birds’. And suddenly, it all makes sense.” 

Farmer Nia O'Malley sitting on ground on her farm in Co Galway with her cows in the background Nia O'Malley Nia O'Malley on her farm in Co Galway with her cows Nia O'Malley

In Part One of a Noteworthy investigation into unsustainable agricultural subsidies, we highlighted how the current model favours intensive – and carbon-unfriendly – farming.

Today, we’re looking at a possible way forward with the likes of the Hen Harrier Project, part of a new wave of results-based payment schemes to protect a range of habitats and species. Noteworthy found that: 

  • State and EU reports point to the failure of the current prescriptive agri-environmental payment model to limit the climate and biodiversity impacts of Irish farming
  • Most payments under GLAS – the State’s current agri-environmental scheme -  have gone to measures that studies show have done little to change the quality of on-farm biodiversity
  • The majority of uptake in the voluntary scheme has gone to farms in areas that already have high nature value, with little uptake from more intensive farms, dairy in particular
  • Results-based pilot projects are showing positive results to date, with both farming and nature experts calling for the rapid ramping up – and better funding – of the model

A fence separating two parcels of land with more high nature value farmland on the left side and grass on the right side Josh Mathews Fence separating two parcels of land with more high nature value farmland on the left Josh Mathews

CAP under fire

As highlighted in Part One of this series, criticism has been laid at the foot of the EU’s farming subsidy model – the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) – for playing a major role in the decline in biodiversity and a rise in agricultural emissions due to its emphasis on production. 

These concerns over farmland biodiversity loss prompted European authorities to bring in extra agri-environmental measures in the early 1990s to reduce pressure on nature.

While funding for these schemes pale in comparison to core annual payments, there is still a significant pot of cash available. The most recent agri-environmental scheme – the Green Low Carbon Agri-Environment Scheme (GLAS) – was introduced in 2014 with funding of over €900m, for example.

GLAS, as its two predecessors, is designed to compensate farmers for costs incurred and a drop in income due to changes to their way of farming to promote biodiversity, protect water quality and combat climate change. 

The prescriptive model offers a menu of actions they can do on their farm. If they can prove the action was carried out, without regard to results, they receive a fixed payment. Under GLAS, there is a maximum pay-out of €5,000 per year, with an additional €2,000 available in some cases. 

The list of actions include things like putting in fencing to stop cattle accessing water sources, leaving land in permanent pasture, planting hedgerow, and improving habitats for at-risk species.

It is estimated that a little over 53,000 farmers who manage 40% of farmland in the country have participated in GLAS, although actions are only carried out on a portion of that land.

On paper things would appear to be set up to ensure that nature flourishes on farms. In reality, however, there isn’t a great deal of data to support a lasting positive impact of this model. 

A recent study from the European Environmental Agency, for example, found there is “no systematic evaluation and assessment” process to measure changes as a result of agri-environmental schemes, with monitoring “dependent on irregular inspections”. 

The limited data available from field studies and State-commissioned audits suggest that most actions have led to little gain for nature against a backdrop of agricultural intensification.

A group of around 10 bird boxes erected on a farm above cut down trees Aengus Kennedy Bird boxes erected on a farm above cleared trees Aengus Kennedy

One step forward…

A 2020 analysis by the EU Court of Auditors, for example, found that the EU subsidy model has failed to reverse biodiversity loss, including in Ireland. Some attempts have also been made in Ireland to measure the direct impact of the Irish schemes. 

A book length study of agri-environmental subsidies produced last year by the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) and the State’s agri-research body Teagasc found that, overall, the “‘one-size-fits-all” approach has “failed to deliver the best biodiversity and ecosystem services outcomes despite their considerable financial costs”.

The Rural Environment Protection Scheme (REPS) – Ireland’s first scheme to encourage farmers to protect the natural world that ran from 1994 to 2013 – was found to have marginal benefits for biodiversity.  

A 2016 study comparing grassland vegetation options under its successor model, the Agri-Environment Option Scheme (AEOS), found that sites under two of the most popular options -  traditional hay meadow and species rich grassland – were relatively species-poor. 

The research team behind the Teagasc-funded study said they would not expect the actions under the two options to increase species richness “or they would do so only very slowly”.

There has been a lot more analysis of GLAS – the current agri-eco scheme – and the results have been mixed at best. The final evaluation report of the scheme does point to some positives, with actions carried out on 87% of sites sampled presenting a good chance of delivering outcomes. 

In addition, it found that positive biodiversity outcomes on two-thirds of farms surveyed would not have been achieved without GLAS. However, a deeper dive into the data on spending shows that there may not have been much long-term change on the ground through the scheme.

According to the evaluation report, most funding went to four key areas – protecting farmland birds (€343m), low input permanent pasture (€234m), hay meadows (€176m) and nature protection on commonages areas (€158m).

Tinkering at the edges

Despite the large spend, the GLAS evaluation report found that the success of actions to protect farmland birds such as breeding waders, corncrake and hen harrier were mixed at best, with vegetation height requirements often not met.

For corncrake, in particular, the “execution of the action is rather weak with the majority of sites failing to have adequate early / late cover” vegetation that is vital to provide shelter for the species. 

It also found that, while adherence to the low-input permanent pasture (LIPP) action was very good, the expected floral cover from actions is “generally not being met”. In terms of actions to nurture traditional hay meadows, it again found that “floral cover outcomes are generally not being met”.

Some of the more popular actions, such as LIPP, farmland habitat and commonage actions, the audit report said, should be considered effective “in the context of maintaining habitats in their current condition rather than against the more challenging requirement of restoration”.

Similar results were seen in the previous assessments in 2017 and 2018. The 2017 modelling report to forecast the long-term impact of GLAS found that, while the scheme could be deemed a success in terms of uptake of actions, it “has not delivered significant biodiversity outcomes”. 

UCD Conservation Biologist Dr Shane McGuinness - We're shooting ourselves in the foot in Ireland because we're already quite green, and our farms already look the colour green, but they're not necessarily dark green in the way that GLAS is meant to work

‘Shooting ourselves in the foot’

According to UCD’s Dr Shane McGuinness, who co-authored a landmark review of State biodiversity funding last year, the current agri-environmental schemes “can barely be called that” due to the minimal positive impact on biodiversity on the ground. 

“Around 33% of payments in GLAS go to low input permanent pasture and that basically necessitates absolutely no change to what you’re currently doing,” he said, also critical of the requirements under the popular hay meadow action. 

“That requires only three species of grass. Now that could be any field in the country yet it is still classified as what would be deemed across the EU as healthy hay meadow,” McGuinness said. 

“We’re shooting ourselves in the foot in Ireland because we’re already quite green, and our farms already look the colour green, but they’re not necessarily dark green in the way that GLAS is meant to work.” 

Another major failing of GLAS is the lack of uptake by farmers in more intensive sectors such as dairy. Participation is concentrated on livestock farms in the north and west where there are already large pockets of farmland with high nature value.

While support to carry out actions to help maintain these habitats is important, UCD environmental economist Dr Craig Bullock said that GLAS is “at best, just achieving some sort of peripheral improvements in biodiversity” as intensive farmers are largely not engaged. 

UCD environmental economist Dr Craig Bullock - GLAS is at best, just achieving some sort of peripheral improvements in biodiversity.

Lack of uptake on intensive farms

The GLAS evaluation report released last October found that the scheme is least attractive to larger, full-time farmers who, according to a 2019 spending review, do not participate due to the low level of payment they would receive.

This, the GLAS audit report found, “constrains voluntary uptake in more intensive farms in the south and east where environmental pressures from farming are greatest”.

This, the report said, is “limiting the impact of the scheme on improving water quality and reducing GHG emissions”, meaning that the overall contribution of GLAS to tackling pollutants mitigating against climate change is “modest at a national scale”.

Improvements on participating farms, it said, must be seen “in the context of expansion of dairy and beef herds in Ireland which has outweighed any gains from GLAS”.

This means that GLAS is “not really doing what it should do, which is really changing the nature of farming”, according to UCD’s Bullock. “The best it’s doing is just slightly mitigating some of the negative impacts.”

A wildflower meadow on farmland on Omey Island designed to create corncrake habitat Niall Sargent Farmland on Omey Island designed to create corncrake habitat Niall Sargent

A results-based future for payments

In terms of a payment model that offers more for both farmers and nature, nearly every expert and farmer that Noteworthy spoke to said that a results-based model is the way forward. 

The GLAS evaluation report itself found the evidence to date indicates “action-based approaches are poorly targeted, less cost-effective and less flexible when compared with results-based approaches”.

Under a prescriptive-model – such as our three agri-environmental schemes to date – a farmer is given a list of actions or conditions to carry out. Provided they adhere to them, they receive a flat rate payment.

Dr James Moran of GMIT, a leading researcher in this field, said the core difference of the results-based model is that it is “linked directly to the delivery of results rather than a set of actions expected to deliver the results which they may or may not deliver”. 

“So each field is typically scored out of 10 using score cards and the higher the quality of the field, the higher the payment level,” he said. Results in Ireland to date stacking up well, leaving Moran “convinced that the results-based payment is better than a blanket payment”.

Role model for Europe

While there is still limited evidence to show whether action-based schemes have had any lasting effect, there are plenty of examples of successful results-based approaches.

The Burren Programme – a pioneering example that has been running for two decades under various guises – has demonstrated success in achieving desired habitat outcome and acts as a poster boy project for the results-based model in Europe. 

Today, there are over 20 active results-based projects in Ireland that cover a range of habitats and species supported by the EU’s European Innovation Partnership (EIP). Much like the Burren project, the latest wave of schemes are recognised by the European Commission as “very successful” to date.

“We’ve done an awful lot of work on our results-based payment schemes in our hen harrier and pearl mussel areas and the Burren that are putting a value on these other ecosystem services, carbon, water, and biodiversity,” said GMIT’s Moran.

Kathryn Finney of BirdWatch Ireland wearing a yellow fleece standing in a field Breeding Curlew EIP Kathryn Finney of BirdWatch Ireland is leading a new results-based project to protect the curlew on farms Breeding Curlew EIP

Game-changing

The advantages of a results-based model go beyond the way farmers are paid, according to Kathryn Finney of BirdWatch Ireland, who is leading a new project to support breeding pairs of the at-risk curlew.

Finney, herself a farmer who has designed results-based scorecards for several projects, said that the model explains the why, as well as the how -  why farmers are being asked to act to protect species and habitats and how best to achieve positive outcomes for nature on their farm.

Finney said the result is a more engaged group of farmers working to achieve the best results for biodiversity that will also mean the farmer gets “the highest payment they can get”.

Vital to this success, Finney said, is that farmers are provided with specialist training from an early stage, as well as consistent support from ecologists and farm advisors at a local level.

“We give them support all the way through so the farmers come out of it with a real key understanding of, not just the biodiversity they’re trying to protect or enhance, but also their role in it… You’re bringing them along and making them custodian, and they have appreciation of their own land and their own role in protecting the species,” Finney said.

“Rather than giving a set list of actions to perform, the “ultimate decision is their own as to how well they try and achieve those measures” to manage the land in a way that benefits biodiversity, she said, while also giving them the flexibility to continue their normal farming operations. Importantly, Finney told Noteworthy, this “gives the farmer freedom to farm”.

Kathryn Finney with farmers on training in the field for the breeding curlew project Breeding Curlew EIP Kathryn Finney with farmers on training in the field for the breeding curlew project Breeding Curlew EIP

‘This is the future’ 

This is true of the Hen Harrier Project, according to Nia O’Malley, where the open nature of the options available allow hill farmers to keep farming while protecting nature in the demanding landscape. 

“Here, our grazing months are quite narrow,  we literally have maybe six months where we have good grazing and from September onwards, the grass really drops off,” she said.

“So you need to weigh up the feeding value of your fields because you need to feed these animals that are also doing the work for you in managing scrub and grazing and creating these nice habitats.”

Following discussions with the project team, O’Malley decided to keep her herd of Belted Galloway in a couple of fields around the house where she needs good grass growth in the summer months and to leave other, less productive large areas of land for biodiversity. 

“I have to weigh it up. I’m running a farm here, I need to be able to feed my animals. So that’s what I like about the project, there’s a lot of give and take,” she said. 

Nia O’Malley's cows grazing in a woodland area on her farm Nia O’Malley Nia O’Malley's cows grazing in woodland area on her farm Nia O’Malley

There are also other supports that have helped O’Malley to further enhance her income while also supporting nature on the mountain behind her farm and on a parcel of family-owned bog that “never would have hald any value” before the project came along. 

Now, she is looking into bog restoration next year with funding from the project that has already supported her to start grazing cattle on the mountain during the summer months.

The cows eat the nutrient dense molinia grass on the range that would otherwise dry up and become “an absolute fire hazard”, she said. In its place, heather is now growing more abundantly and is prime habitat for the hen harrier and various other species. 

On top of this, because her cows are off the farm during the summer months, O’Malley can now look at taking on sheep to graze the fields around the house.

“It’s improving the farm income because I now have another livestock source that I can feed and sell. And I think that’s important. And that’s thanks to the Hen Harrier Project.” 

Farmer Nia O'Malley - Now I walk my land and think this is such a special place. This is the future.

Wildlife corridor in the West

There are also new results-based projects in the pipeline that could bring the same shift in mindset to the likes of forestry.

One such scheme is the Illaun Farm-Forest project that, according to project lead Ray Ó Foghlú, “will focus on remnant ancient woodlands hanging on in little river valleys” in west Clare. 

 Much like agricultural subsidies to date, support for woodland creation has been a “pretty crude instrument” according to Ó Foghlú, who is also a Nuffield Scholar exploring policy opportunities to increase tree cover in Ireland dominated by conifer plantations. 

“For me the whole agri-environmental space should be built on genuine relationships, advice on the ground that respects the culture of food production and integrates knowledge and support about something we have to do – reduce emissions and improve biodiversity on farms,” he said.

Aeriel photo of a native woodland in the Glendine Valley in Co Clare Ray Ó Foghlú Woodland in the Glendine Valley that the Illaun Farm Forest project wants to link to pockets of trees and woodland on farms in the area Ray Ó Foghlú

While the project has several ecology and forestry experts in place, the key to connecting those fragments of native woodland is working with the farmers on the ground and rewarding them for doing so, unlike the current subsidy model, Ó Foghlú said. 

“Farmers will be penalised in their CAP payments for allowing forest to creep out onto their land. You see it left right and centre where scrub is cleared or pushed back,” he said.

“It’s obvious to me that the best places to expand our native woodlands are at the fringes of existing woodlands [on farms] and that’s exactly the place where we’re stifling our woodland growth,” said Ó Foghlú. 

The project will involve farmers on the northwest side of Slievecallan where Ó Foghlú said there is an “amazing woodland” with the county’s most westerly population of red squirrels.  

Ray Ó Foghlú,Illaun Farm-Forest project - I love the idea that our project could connect pockets of woodland on different farms and entice those squirrels to move further west

More bang for your buck 

There are many other examples of successful projects to date, including in more intensive farming sectors such as dairy, as seen through the well-documented work of the BRIDE Project in Co Cork

Conclusions drawn from experts in a 2020 Teagasc and NPWS-led analysis of results-based schemes found that projects that are “locally-led or locally-adapted have the potential to offer higher environmental effectiveness compared to generic action-based approaches”.

A follow-up 2021 study from GMIT, IT Sligo and Teagasc found that successful results-based approaches “offer significant cost-effectiveness (value for money) even if their transaction costs may be higher than action-based approaches”. 

“Although they can look like they’re administratively quite expensive, really, what you’re getting is ongoing advisory for the farmers [and] ecological monitoring right the way through so you can show that it’s working, and you can show value for money,” according to Birdwatch’s Finney.

“That’s a big failing in a lot of the predecessors,” she said of the prescriptive model. “They weren’t monitored, they weren’t valued. Nature needs to be rewarded, the farmer needs to be rewarded for it and it needs to be given a value so that it is seen as part of what makes a farm.”

A biodiverse stream on peaty land with flowers along the banks on an eco-friendly farm in Co Mayo Josh Mathews Biodiverse stream on peaty land on eco-friendly farm in Co Mayo Josh Mathews

Ramping up of supports 

In order to put this results-based element front and centre of the future agri-environmental model, more funding is essential, according to Finney. 

“There’s no two ways about it [in order] to tackle biodiversity loss on the scale that we need to. What you need is more of this local-led approach where you can tailor agri-environmental schemes to an area. But it needs funding through the mainstream CAP and really, without that, you’re tinkering around the edges.”

The Government seems to be listening to the calls of experts and the results from projects such as those Finney is involved in, recently launching the Results Based Environment Agri Pilot (REAP) to test the results-based approach on a variety of farm types with a view to replacing GLAS in 2023. 

The model will pay farmers up to €12,600 over the term of their contract out to 2022. The Minister for Agriculture stated in May that the project was “heavily oversubscribed”, with almost 11,000 applications received, showing the desire from farmers for result-based models to go mainstream. 

According to Ray Ó Foghlú, this can’t come soon enough. ”I think there is a latent love and desire to connect with the environment on the farmers’ part. So I really think that love of nature is there, we just need to tap into it.” 

***

In Part One, out yesterday, we examined how the current agricultural subsidy model is encouraging farmers to cut back on nature and is, instead, penalising them for maintaining biodiversity hotspots on their land. 

 ***

This investigation was carried out by Niall Sargent of Noteworthy. It was proposed and funded by you, our readers. 

Noteworthy is the investigative journalism platform from The Journal. You can support our work by helping to fund one of our other investigation proposals or submitting an idea for a story. Click here to find out more >>

We also have a number of environmental and farming-related investigation proposals which you can view here

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