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Rally to Restore Nature. Pictured (LtoR) Heather McEntee, Maryann Hanratty from Irish Wildlife Trrust, Dublin Friends of the Earth Criomhtann Morrison and Angela Deegan from Extinction Rebellion joined protesters outside Leinster House today calling on all political leaders in Ireland to ensure that Ireland supports an ambitious Nature Restoration Law in negotiations between the European Parliament, European Council, and the European Commission. Photo: Sam Boal/

Eoghan Daltun 'Yes, state budget surpluses should be used to pay farmers to rewild their land'

The author and campaigner says if we are at all serious about reversing the death of Irish nature, we need to be rewilding on as big a scale as possible.

RECENT TALK IN the national media of the Green Party pushing for farmers to be paid to bring back nature has brought reactions ranging from great excitement to vehement hostility.

Which is the right take?

Well, as a small farmer myself, I can tell you that such a measure could NOT be more needed. If done right, it has the potential to be a game-changer in a positive way not only for nature, but also farming communities, the climate, and to be massively beneficial for society at large.

Nature needs saving

Let’s begin by looking at the context. Nature is dying in Ireland; and no, that is not an exaggeration. All the indicators of how wild species and habitats are faring on this island could scarcely be worse.

There are a variety of reasons for this situation, but by far and away the greatest of them is farming – mostly based on livestock: cattle, sheep, pigs or poultry, farming has become increasingly industrialised, and based on monocultures, over the last 75 years or so.

So where a cattle pasture may once have contained a great multitude of wild plants, now there is likely to be only one species – perennial rye grass – and little else, regularly dosed in chemical fertilisers and liquid manure in the form of slurry.

Similarly, almost all diversity has been grazed out of our uplands by sheep, leaving only barren wastes of molinia grass and a handful of other species that can withstand the incessant nibbling. Hedgerows, very often the sole surviving refuges for wild flora and fauna, are being torn out at the rate of thousands of linear kilometres per year. In many places, the only ‘cover’ is blocks of deadzone sitka spruce plantation forestry.

In short, we have turned almost the entire island of Ireland into a highly artificial ultra-farmed landscape, leaving virtually no space for nature.

So it’s no wonder things are so bad, and worsening, for our wildlife. And this state of affairs is a disaster for the climate too: healthy natural habitats suck down vast quantities of carbon and help stabilise the climate in other ways, while ecologically dead landscapes do not. In fact, they have the opposite effect.

Rewilding is the answer

But here’s the thing: it isn’t only nature and the climate that are suffering. Many rural communities are in a bad way too, with local schools, post offices, shops, pubs, GAA clubs and other vitals struggling to remain viable as surrounding populations dwindle.

Most farmers are over 50, and the average age is rising. Increasingly, younger generations have no interest in taking on the family farm, understanding all too well that it means a life of tough, relentless, and anxiety-ridden work. Things clearly aren’t working for nature or people in the countryside.

But there is a solution: rewilding. Simply put, this means giving land back to nature and natural processes. It’s what I’ve been doing on most of my own farm for the last 14 years, with wonderful results: the whole place has come alive, with newly self-formed highly species-rich temperate rainforest and other habitats covering the land. While making farming more wildlife-friendly is crucial, we know that what nature needs above all else is plenty of space where no farming takes place at all: wild natural ecosystems.

If we are at all serious about reversing the death of Irish nature, it’s very simple: we need to be rewilding on as big a scale as possible.

But of course, farmers depend on producing food from their land to make a living, and it would be entirely unfair to expect them to sacrifice their livelihoods for the common good. The answer is for society to give farmers the option of making a decent living from rewilding.

They themselves could choose whether to carry on producing food, or else natural habitat instead, or a bit of both. In places like Beara, there are almost no full-time farmers now: everyone has some other part-time job to survive. It would suit some of them to be paid to rewild their land, which requires far less time and financial input than farming, allowing more to spend with families or other activities. The benefits of widening farmers’ options would be enormous: for farmers, nature, the climate, and society as a whole.

Working together

It’s vital to stress that none of this should be forced on farmers: doing so wouldn’t only be wrong, it would backfire, causing huge resentment and resistance in the most divisive and destructive ways imaginable. Buying farmers out, or any moves towards compulsory purchase orders, would also be an enormous mistake, with similar results.

Even a superficial understanding of Irish history, with particular regard to land ownership, dispossession, and the Land War, will make it obvious why.

Attempting to do so would touch a deep cultural nerve created by centuries of past injustice, which at regular intervals caused mass mortality events, the best-known of which is of course An Gorta Mór – The Great Famine.

Many farms have been worked by the same family for generations, and if we want rewilding to happen on a mass scale, these are the people to do it, on their own land, and only if they want to. Rewilding needs to – and can – make rural communities more vibrant, resilient and diverse, benefiting nature, people, and the climate. But to work, it must have local communities behind it, and compulsory measures would without a doubt have the opposite effect.

The finances to make this happen are already in place: the farm subsidies are presently paid out of the public purse. We simply give farmers that additional choice; some will opt to take it up and others won’t. Extra funds should be directed towards additional costs that will arise, such as the reintroduction of some of the many native Irish species made extinct by human activities, or bumping up farm payments where biodiversity reaches optimum levels as a financial incentive to do better.

Ecological collapse in Ireland can be turned around, we just need to make it a financially feasible – no, attractive – option for those responsible for the overwhelming bulk of land in Ireland: our farmers.



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