Influencing Policy in Termoncarragh
SPA in Ireland
The decline in traditional agricultural activity in the Republic of Ireland, and the switch to more intensive methods, has had severe consequences for many birds associated with semi-natural habitats. Standard farm support payments, which are linked to agricultural good practice, generally do not tackle the root causes of such problems – what would be needed is support linked to ecological good practice.
Termoncarragh, a coastal freshwater lake and reedbed set amidst extensive machair grassland on the Mullet peninsula in north-west Mayo, is important for breeding waders and for wintering wildfowl, including barnacle geese Branta leucopsis, Greenland white-fronted geese Anser albifrons flavirostris, and whooper swans Cygnus cygnus. The corncrake, Crex crex, was also once a common sight here and still uses the area occasionally despite the recent population crash. There is consequently a high potential for restoration of suitable habitat for this species. The nearby Annagh Marsh, a small coastal machair and wet grassland site, was until recently the only regular Irish breeding site for the red-necked phalarope, Phalaropus lobatus.
The economic mainstay for this district is low-intensity agriculture within small holdings. It is essentially based on subsidies, with low returns on the sale of farming produce. In the year 2000 an estimated 75% of farmers were in the Irish national agri-environment scheme, called REPS, to help supplement their income. Yet there was a paradox: the agri-environment scheme seemed to be hindering rather than encouraging the conservation of the local birdlife. Having not considered the species ecology or management needs during the design stage, many schemes had either no impact on local wildlife or often turned out to be doing more damage than good.
Demonstrating conservation friendly farming
Considering the generally negative attitudes of farmers to Natura 2000 site designation, the inadequate linkages between farming and conservation and a lack of suitable demonstration areas to show bird-friendly practices, the conservation NGO BirdWatch Ireland, decided, in 2001, to undertake a three-year demonstration project with support from LIFE-Nature. It already had a landholding at Annagh Marsh and could use this foothold to establish a wider project, in partnership with Teagasc (the Irish state agricultural advisory service), to demonstrate birdlife-friendly farming.
The intention of this project was to turn constraints into an opportunity, both for the birds and for the local community, by demonstrating that Natura 2000 can be a positive element in realising potential socio-economic benefits to disadvantaged rural regions. In close collaboration with both the government agencies responsible for REPS and farmers’ associations, the project set out to formulate and demonstrate best-practice techniques for creating ideal habitat conditions for targeted Annex I birds.
These could then be taken on board during the mid-term review of REPS, so as to create a more targeted bird habitat enhancement dimension to the agri-environmental scheme. This would be accompanied by a positive information campaign to counteract previous negative perceptions of Natura 2000 designations and to encourage further uptake of the new REPS scheme.
To enable the demonstration of best-practice management for corncrake, a plot of meadow land was purchased with the aid of LIFE funding. A ten-year agreement was concluded with a farmer and during the project, various techniques of grazing, composting, etc... were tried out, with varying success, in a trial and error experiment.
Management agreements were also signed with an increasingly important number of farmers within the Termoncarragh SPA to carry out one of the following activities:
- various combinations of grazing with early/late cover and centre-out
mowing for the benefit of conrcrake
- grazing to create habitat mosaics for phalaropes
- for the benefit of wintering geese, combinations of retention of winter
stubble (oats etc), sowing of forage crops, no winter grazing
BirdWatch Ireland used these demonstration sites as part of a series of training days run by its partner Taegasc for farmers entering the Rural Environment Protection Scheme (REPS) in Ireland. These proved to be very popular, with over 200 farmers attending in the period of the project.
The medium to long-term aim was to use this demonstration project to influence and support new prescriptions and options in future REPS. The project had to ensure, therefore, that its messages were reaching policy makers in agricultural and conservation bodies.
This was achieved quite successfully: experience gained in Termoncarragh was fed into the mid-term review of REPS 2 by Teagasc in 2003. This contributed to the revised REPS 3 in 2004, which increased baseline payments and brought in a new set of ’biodiversity options’ within the agri-environment scheme. In June 2004 a new REPS measure specifically for corncrake, based on the LIFE project, was prescribed and became available to farmers.
More is in the pipeline for REPS 4, due to start in 2007/2008: the National Parks and Wildlife Service, the competent authority for conservation, is considering using the Termoncarragh management agreements as case studies for a Farm Plan Scheme designed for farmland in Natura 2000 sites with similar habitats.
The LIFE project also prepared a series of ‘farming to enhance habitats’ guides on meadow grasslands, wet grassland, sandy grassland (machair) and soft rush (Juncus effusus) damp pasture which serve as a useful reference for the future.
Farmers too would welcome more discussion about wildlife-friendly farming, rather than the focus on designations which has led to tensions. The challenge is to make designations beneficial to farmers. Initiatives such as the Termoncarragh LIFE project have encouraged dialogue and have shown what can be achieved when a farming community embraces conservation principles. In the final analysis the most crucial element of the project has been the range of stakeholders involved and the development of mutual trust and respect.
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