Recent research by leading experts in the field of agro-ecology and sustainable agriculture have estimated that approximately 34% of Ireland’s farmland can be classified as very high likelihood of being High Nature Value farmland (HNVf) (Matin, et al., 2020). These areas have the potential to provide important semi-natural habitats, biodiversity and deliver essential ecosystem services, including water quality, flood mitigation, carbon sequestration, pollination but also cultural and natural heritage. About 54% of this High Nature Value farmland can be found in Irelands’ upland areas (Matin, et al., 2020). The preservation of the Irish uplands depends on traditional low-intensity hill farming practices, where hill farmers rely on suitable agri-environmental subsides, to sustain their livelihoods. However, these mountainous regions are known for their challenging environmental conditions and vulnerability in relation to climate change. These upland areas have also been influenced by productivist agri-policies (e.g. Ewe Premium & Headage payments), which in many areas lead to severe historical overgrazing, resulting in lasting adverse effects on the environment and diverse set of challenges for rural communities living in these areas.
As part of the research for the ongoing PhD research, I spent about three years assessing hill farmers’ attitudes and local environmental knowledge in relation to the implementation of agri-environmental schemes, focusing on the top-down Green Low-carbon Agri-environment Scheme (GLAS). GLAS is Ireland’s most recent agri-environmental policy, which is a voluntary scheme based on a top-down and action-based incentive, paying farmers to undertake environmentally friendly farming practices. However, academic research indicates that financial motivations alone are often insufficient to increase farmers’ willingness to adopt environmentally sustainable farming practices (Wilson & Hart, 2001; Sulemana & James, 2014; Forney, 2016). I, therefore, asked myself the question how can agri-environmental schemes influence hill farmers to participate in long-term pro-environmental behaviour, and what are some of the potential motivations or barriers for the adoption of sustainable farming practices? Using a mixed-method approach, the scientific basis of this research depends on Q methodology, which has recently gained prominence in geographical research especially in relation to understanding to environmental policy implementation.
The aim of the ongoing research is to critically examine how agri-environmental schemes (AES) may influence hill farmers’ local environmental knowledge on upland management. This will provide a comparative analysis of GLAS and results-based agri-environmental schemes and their influence on hill farmers’ local environmental knowledge on their upland management practices. Furthermore, the study aims to analyse how and whether these schemes support hill farmers adoption of more sustainable farming regimes in the two case studies areas. These are in the Connemara uplands, where hill farmers are participating in the GLAS Commonage Management Plan, and the Slieve Augthy Mountains, Special Protection Area (SPA), where farmers participate in the GLAS Hen Harrier option. The alternative to the ‘top-down’ approach of GLAS, are locally-led EIP-AGRI Operational Groups which postulate a ‘bottom-up’ and result-based approach to agri-environmental policy implementation. At the beginning of this research back in 2018, within the Connemara region there were no EIP-AGRI or results-based agri-environmental schemes available to farmers, however in the Slieve Aughty Mountains the implementation of the Hen Harrier scheme had commenced in 2017. Therefore, some of the hill farmers interviewed as part of this research had first-hand experience of the Hen Harrier Project EIP-AGRI.
Today in Ireland there are 23 European Innovation Partnerships (EIP-AGRI), which are funded and implemented under the Rural Development Programme (RDP). Across the EU the implementation of EIP-AGRI operational groups seeks to bring together a diverse range of partners (e.g. local farmers, farm advisors, scientists, and relevant stakeholders) to develop innovative solutions to a wide range of challenges facing agriculture. EIP-AGRI operational groups offer flexibility and locally-led approach to agri-environmental schemes.
For example, the Hen Harrier Project currently is Europe’s largest results-based EIP-AGRI with approximately 1,525 Irish farmers and a budget of 25,000,000 Euros. The Hen harrier (Circus cyaneus) is a rare ground nesting bird of prey and its’ population has been estimated at 108-157 breeding pairs. This enigmatic bird of prey depends on high nature value farmland habitats, such as upland rough grazing, peatlands, heath and marginal grasslands. Therefore, the conservation of the Hen harrier (Circus cyaneus) depends on suitable farming practices, maintaining important High Nature Value farmland (HNVf).
Assessing the complexity of issues and above-mentioned challenges hill farmers are facing in the Irish uplands, it has become clear that innovative and more flexible approaches to agri-environmental policy implementation are needed. There are some indications that EIP-AGRI Operational Groups may offer novel and innovative options, which might be implemented in a more effective and inclusive manner, and are therefore worthy of further research. In this regard, EIP-AGRI Operational Groups offer the opportunity for farmers to collaborate with the experts and scientists, potentially leading to valuable local solutions to upland management and biodiversity conservation. Today this gives hope for a better future within the Connemara region, where two new EIP-AGRI Operational Groups have commenced recently. These EIP-AGRI Operational Groups include the North-Connemara Locally Led scheme and the Pearl Mussel Project. The implementation of the latter together with the Hen Harrier Project (EIP-AGRI) will provide the focus for the research under the ongoing PhD.
Verena Berard is a CUA PhD scholarship postgraduate at IT Sligo and Galway Mayo Institute of Technology, Mayo campus (GMIT). In 2017, she was awarded the GMIT RISE scholarship, the research under the MA concentrated on hill farmers’ attitudes towards the Green Low-carbon Agri-environmental Scheme (GLAS). In 2019 Verena was awarded the CUA PhD scholarship. The ongoing research under PhD seeks to critically evaluate hill farmers’ local environmental knowledge and attitudes towards biodiversity conservation and ecosystem services in results-based Hen Harrier and Pearl Mussel Project (EIP-AGRI). This research is supervised by Dr. Margaret O’Riordan and Dr. Mark Garavan (GMIT) and Dr. Dolores Byrne (IT Sligo). Most recently Verena has become part of the Agro-ecology and Rural Development (ARD) research group at GMIT and IT Sligo.
Twitter: Verena Berard (@VerenaBerard)
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Wilson, G. A. & Hart, K., 2001. Farmer Participation in Agri-Environmental Schemes: towards conservation oriented thinking. Sociologia Ruralis, 41(2), pp. 254-274.
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