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World-famous for their mix of Irish culture and nature, the Aran Islands are learning just how much they owe to agriculture, and how much they may have to pay to keep it

View of Inis Mor from summer pastures of Padraic O Falithearta Aran Islands Sept. 2018.

In Galway Bay just off the coast of Ireland, a new five-year project called AranLIFE aims to help preserve both a unique farming system and also the cultural and ecologically important landscapes that depend on it.

It’s a project that started with the same question that more Canadian farmers and non-farmers are also asking.

Is it possible to have an agriculture that keeps environmentalists and landscape lovers happy while also being reasonably productive and meeting farmers’ needs?

AranLIFE has brought together a number of different partners, including farmers, to develop locally based, results-led actions and practices that meet the production needs of farmers and at the same time maintain the biodiversity and ecological integrity of the islands’ habitats and landscape.

Admittedly, it’s a mouthful. But the stakes are high.

Not only is their local way of life totally dependent upon traditional agriculture and the local knowledge of farmers, but so is the entire economy of the islands.

Some 250,000 tourists travel to the Aran Islands annually to see the storybook landscape of small green fields and stone walls, the unchanged culture and traditions of the islands, ancient monuments, and the habitats that support biodiversity, with rare species of flora and fauna, including some not found anywhere else in the world.

The main point, though, is that without farmers, none of it would be sustainable.

“Tourists are coming to see the farmers’ work,” says Margaret Murray of the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. She is responsible for administering the European Innovation Partnership (EIP) program, which partially funded the AranLIFE project.

A cleared Boreen (stone walled walkway) on Inis Mor Sept 2018. photo: Supplied

“If the farmers weren’t farming in the way that they do, the islands would be covered in scrub; they’d be inaccessible and ugly. Farmers are working with food production and keeping generations of families here, but it’s also about stewardship, heritage, architecture and a rich culture. What the farmers do here is invaluable.”

Agriculture under threat

At first glance, it’s hard to imagine an agriculture more different from Canada’s.

Since the Stone Age, the inhabitants of the three Aran Islands (Inis Mór, Inis Meáin and Inis Inis Oírr) have enjoyed a unique culture, with traditions, customs and a way of life predicated upon a self-sustaining agricultural system that maintains the landscape of the islands.

Farms on the Aran Islands average between six to 20 hectares and their land is fragmented. The main farm enterprise is suckler cows, and herd sizes average four animals, which farmers ship at around seven- to nine-months-old for finishing elsewhere in Ireland. Grazing is year-round and there is no housing or silage on the islands.

“It takes a lot of skill to match animals’ needs with the amount of forage that is there,” says Patrick McGurn, AranLIFE project manager. “This system has produced a great range of habitats and associated plants and birds.”

The farming activities have given rise to the spectacular plant biodiversity that exists on the islands. More than half of all Irish plant species can be found on the Aran Islands, despite the fact that they are less than one per cent of the total land area of Ireland.

Without farmers, Pádraic Ó Flaithearta explains, the landscape will disappear. But how can his son make a life on a farm where he must use traditional methods? photo: Supplied

But these traditional farming activities are increasingly under threat. Since the 1950s this high nature-value (HNV) farming system that relies on carefully balanced, year-round grazing management has been getting harder to maintain, and low economic returns and limits to expansion have started to change the landscape on the Aran Islands.

“Farmers are paid for the food that they produce, the calves that they sell. Sometimes the cost of opening access, of clearing scrub or building a rain catcher is not justified in terms of the extra livestock that they’re going to sell from it,” says McGurn.

This increasingly means that fields get abandoned, or not grazed as much, resulting in the encroachment of the heavy scrub that quickly overtakes the fragile biodiversity that has become established over centuries of careful management.

“The farmers themselves are concerned about the island, and changes in the island,” says McGurn. “A survey by the Heritage Council looked at what traditional agri-environment schemes had done for the island, and while they produced some very positive things for the island, they weren’t addressing the issues needed for the conservation of some of the habitats that have been designated under the EU Habitats Directive.”

Most of the landscape on the Aran Islands has been designated by the EU as being rare in Europe, and the focus is to keep them as they are.

Ecological goods and services

In Canada there is growing discussion about whether farmers should be paid for the ecological goods and services they provide. In the EU, by contrast, many farmers already do receive such compensation, and the discussion is moving on.

Now the question is whether the compensation is being properly targeted. Does it reward the people who actually do the work, manage the landscapes and adopt practices that provide measurable, ongoing ecological benefits?

It was because of this need that the €2.5 million AranLIFE project took shape with regional, national and EU funding.

From the very beginning, farmers themselves were involved in planning and implementing the project, which concentrated on the three main habitats on the islands: machair (low-lying, coastal, dune grasslands), calcareous grasslands (supporting semi-dry, orchid-rich natural grasslands and scrubland) and limestone pavement (mainly on the rocky, north-facing side of the islands).

Three-quarters of the islands are designated as Special Areas of Conservation (SAC) — the highest level of EU protection.

After initial meetings to introduce the concept of the project, over 100 of the island’s 200 farmers expressed interest in participating. The team had a hard time narrowing the number down to 67 to accommodate its funding, visiting each farm to assess it using selection criteria based on the aims of the project and needs and status of each individual farm.

Developing plans with the farmers

The team worked with each farm to produce a customized farm plan. “We walked the fields with the farmer and identified what work was needed,” says McGurn. “The main thing needed was grazing. These grasslands need to be grazed, otherwise they’re not grassland. So we had to identify what was stopping grazing. We didn’t dictate grazing time or stocking rates, we worked with the farmers to explain what we were trying to achieve and saying, ‘Can you produce that on your farm?’”

The hard physical work of improving the condition of these priority habitats was done by the farmers themselves, like farmers Pádraic Ó Coincheanainn, who has 31 different parcels of land and 90 different fields on his farm on Inis Meáin.

New water catcher on Padraic O Flaithearta's farm on Inis Mor Sept. 2018. photo: Supplied

Growing up, he had helped his dad on the land but when he went off to college on the mainland he wasn’t really interested in returning to farm. The AranLIFE project has rekindled his interest, even though he was reminded of the challenges when he built new water tanks for his cattle as part of the project work. “It was difficult to make them in some places,” he explained in his presentation at the AranLIFE conference held in September 2018 on Inis Mór. “You can’t get a tractor in, so I had to bring the sand and (cinder) blocks in by hand and it took me 15 minutes to bring one block up. Eventually I put the blocks on a donkey and was able to bring in a few at a time but it still took over a month to build just one tank.”

But Ó Coincheanainn says he’s still happy he got involved. “AranLIFE gave me more interest in farming and I learned a lot more about the land — things I didn’t know before,” he says. “There is more incentive to continue to improve the land if you know you are going to get a good score.”

The scoring system

To monitor progress, the project team developed a scoring system based on habitat quality related to grazing pressure. The scoring system has five different levels and a farmer is paid through the project for producing that habitat. The different scoring levels reflect the different ecological value of the habitat, with five represent- ing good quality, priority habitat that is well managed through grazing and has high-species diversity.

As a farmer implements measures to improve things like biodiversity, the score can increase, with correspondingly higher compensation levels up to a maximum of €150 per hectare.

Researchers with the team were also able to assess things like the nutritional quality of grasslands in these areas in order to develop feed supplements to help farmers better meet the nutritional needs of their animals.

School classes and overseas groups began touring the sites. “It was important to let people know what we’re doing, why it’s important and why agriculture is important to the island,” McGurn stays.

Typical stone walls divide pastures on Aran Islands. photo: Supplied

“The landscape has such a history behind it, there are stone monuments everywhere and we had to take that into account particularly when we were using maybe loose stone to build some rain catchers,” says McGurn.

Around 30 new monuments were identified through the project, which are listed in a new island monuments brochure along with others that were already known.

The achievements

The 67 farmers involved in the AranLIFE project have improved access to land parcels by clearing 92 hectares of scrub and bracken and cleaning out 28 km of boreens (narrow passageways between fields, bordered by stone walls). They have implemented optimal grazing plans on 1,100 hectares of land within the project area.

Access to adequate water for livestock is a major challenge to optimal, year-round grazing as the islands have no rivers and farmers source fresh water from rainfall. Farmers, through AranLIFE funding, have installed 131 new water catchers and repaired 107 existing rain catchers, which provide an additional 450,000 litres of water annually.

Yet it is the results-based, collaborative approach that farmers say they have liked most. “I think it’s a great project,” says Domhnall Ó Flaithearta, a farmer on Inis Mór who participated in AranLIFE. “As a farmer it’s great when you are part of the plan.”

If there are messages for Canadian agriculture, they relate to rewarding farmers for the ecological goods and services that they provide. EU programs have subsidized agricultural conservation for 20 years, but have not always achieved their ecological goals. Even though our agricultures may be vastly different, and even though some are heavily subsidized while others are not, maybe we have the same needs, hopes and challenges.

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Angela Lovell

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