In this National Rural Network EIP-AGRI guest blog, Dr Brendan Dunford, Manager of the Burren Programme, explains that the role of the farmer is much more than just being a ‘food producer’, but also one that deliveries a number of agri-environmental public goods as well as heritage conservation. He also provides us with interesting insight into the Burren Programme, and the successful journey it has taken to date in helping to ensure the sustainability, viability and vibrancy of the Burren’s farming community. Dr Dunford also commends the emergence of EIP-AGRI projects across Ireland, particularly their farmer-centred, results-based approach and the manner in which they are fittingly bespoke to the needs of their local area.

I often reflect on how privileged I am to have lived and worked here in the Burren over the past two decades. Privileged, not just because the Burren is a place of such beguiling beauty and deep intrigue, but because I have been here at a time which somehow seems significant in the Burren’s long history, a time when the humble role of ‘the farmer’ has been reframed from that of ‘food producer’ to encompass other significant roles such as environmental steward, heritage custodian, citizen scientist and teacher.

Early on in our Burren ‘journey’, the importance of the farming community in sustaining the biodiversity, archaeology and landscape of the Burren became apparent. As owners and managers of the land and livestock, as heirs to generations of practical, local farming knowledge, as a community with deep loyalty to their place, farmers, uniquely, have the potential to meet the management needs of this special place. While this may seem like an obvious conclusion, poorly-designed (albeit generally well-intentioned) policy, advice and funding mechanisms served instead to undermine this stewardship role, a sorry situation which unfortunately remains the rule in many protected landscapes across the world today.

That the latent stewardship potential of the Burren’s farming community is gradually being unlocked is down to a combination of factors– strong local leadership enabling constructive local partnerships, farmer-centered supports (to enable farm-level innovation and accommodate field-level complexity) and a local advisory resource to help farmers navigate the daunting bureaucratic burden of farming in a protected landscape, for example. The most gratifying aspects of this work are to witness the strong working partnership that continues to flourish among one-time opponents, to walk the land and see improvements in habitat management and farm infrastructure, to see local farmers proudly, publicly proclaim the nature and significance of their work in sustaining their unique heritage.

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More recently, the emergence of EIP AGRI projects across Ireland – each one fittingly bespoke to the needs of their local area – has given us all cause for renewed hope. For too often the Burren Programme was considered an overly complex, expensive, bespoke solution which couldn’t work elsewhere. It is now clear however that fundamental principles of partnership, local adaptation, rewarding results and taking a more farmer-centred approach to heritage conservation can indeed work, efficiently and effectively, elsewhere. We are now at the happy stage of not just sharing our Burren story with others, but learning from others about, for example, applying new technology in the field, developing scoring cards for different habitats, creating new opportunities for local employment.

While much progress has been achieved, in truth, the journey has just begun. During the next CAP cycle we will need to see the learnings from the Burren Programme and EIP-AGRI Projects integrated more deeply into policy – through new GLAS options for example, or by scaling the impact of the projects through a dedicated higher-level, results-based payments programme for high nature value (HNV) farmland. At a time of several crises – in biodiversity, climate and farm income – we must be ambitions and bold in harvesting lessons from these Projects and applying them more widely, to build a better future, one that will nourish and revitalise our rural communities and landscapes.

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Author Biography

Dr Brendan DunfordDr. Brendan Dunford is a farming background in Co. Waterford, Brendan has spent over 20 years living and working in the Burren. He led the award-winning BurrenLIFE Project and today manages its successor, the ‘Burren Programme’, working with 330 farmers on 23,000ha of land. Along with his late wife Ann, Brendan co-founded the Burrenbeo Trust which aims to ‘connect all of us to our places and our role in caring for them’.

He is a founder of the ‘Farming for Nature’ initiative which aims to encourage and support nature-friendly farming. In 2018 he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate by NUI Galway for his work in championing biodiversity.

Reimagining Rural Futures