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Conserving natural heritage locally

Living

FARMERS’ PRIDE The corncrake, known for its distinctive ‘washboard’ call, nests in fields and meadows.

Ballycroy native Phelim Doran and Belmullet farmer Feargal Ó Cuinneagáin want more to experience the benefits of conservation farming

Anton McNulty

Mention the word ‘conservation’ to farmers and more often than not they will give short shrift to the idea, with many farmers in this part of the world claiming conservation is another method for putting them out of business.
Trying to sell the idea of altering farming techniques in the west of Ireland in the name of conservation is a hard slog, but it is exactly what a group of conservationists are trying to do in the Mullet Peninsula.
On Heritage Day during the Belmullet Festival, Ballycroy native Phelim Doran is teaming up with part-time farmer and Dublin-based vet Feargal Ó Cuinneagáin, and Liam Loftus of the National Parks and Wildlife Service, to give a series of talks on the benefits of local conservation farming.
The Mullet Peninsula is one of the last remaining strongholds of the corncrake and the twite, and protecting these birds while continuing the traditional method of farming in the region is what the men are hoping local farmers will sign up to.
No mean feat, but the current climate in which the future of beef and suckler farming is uncertain might prove a help. Feargal Ó Cuinneagáin believes that farmers will become interested if its benefits them.
“You hear a lot of negative things about farmers being against biodiversity, but if you give farmers technical advice and give them a good grant, they will go into the scheme. There are couple of farmers around me who are worried about cattle prices and interested in these type of schemes,” explained Feargal Ó Cuinneagáin, who farms 25 acres of land outside Belmullet.

Corncrake scheme for farmers
The scheme he is referring to is the National Parks and Wildlife Service Corncrake Farm Plan, which Feargal and up to four other farmers in the Mullet peninsula have signed up to. The scheme offers grants to farmers who engage in the scheme and change their farming methods, introducing such practices as delayed mowing and nettle growing to protect nesting corncrakes.
A native of Co Limerick, Feargal is based in Dublin, where he works as a vet for the Department of Agriculture. He bought his farm in Belmullet in 2011.
“I contacted the agri ecology unit of NPWS and they came out and had a look at the farm. They draw a management plan for you and you get a generous enough grant as well. They give technical advice for growing nettle patches or iris patches for corncrakes and advice for growing. You might think it is easy enough to grow nettles but they are technical things you have to get right,” he said.
When he first started farming there were no corncrakes on the land, but this year he recorded five calling males in his field.
“It is an enjoyable thing to do, to see the reward of corncrakes coming back – and getting paid as well is good,” he said, adding that he still cuts silage, and contrary to some farmers fears, the land has not been ‘abandoned’.
“My farms hasn’t gone wild; it is mowed every year. You don’t just shut up shop. I have cattle grazing there in the autumn. The corncrake needs farming … if you abandon the land completely the grass does not become suitable for the corncrake. You are not abandoning the land [with this scheme]. There is a big push for forestation – that is abandoning the land. With this scheme farmers are still farming away.”

Farmers’ pride
Feargal believes farmers in the region are interested in preserving the corncrake because they take pride in having them on their land.
“There is no corncrakes left in Westport, so you won’t get farmers talking about them because there are none. But if you go to Belmullet where there are corncrakes, when they start coming in around April, the farmers will be talking about them. If you talk to any of the farmers they will know who has corncrakes, so there is an interest there. There is a pride about it too, most of the rest of the country doesn’t have them, but Mayo still has them!”
Feargal is also a realist. He understands that farmers have to make a living, and convincing them to change their methods will take time and money. However, if more funding were available more farmers will get on board, he believes.
“The thing with the National Parks scheme is there is limited funding, so there isn’t a lot of farmers in it. If there was more funding there would be more farmers … You could pay them to protect the biodiversity while still managing and farming the land. That would keep more guys on the land.”

Keeping farming alive
Keeping people on the land is something that Ballycroy native Phelim Doran believes will ultimately convince local farmers to go into conversation farming. Now an engineer based in Dublin, his interest in conservation and biodiversity began when the family farm started to become overgrown with rhododendron and they were trying to combat them and other invasive species.  
He understands that conservation farming is currently a hard sell, but he sees it as the best bet for communities like Erris in keeping people on the land and stopping the spread of invasive plants.
“If you read the Farmers Journal about what’s happening with beef farming, it means less-productive areas, like along the west coast, will have trouble maintaining farming communities.
“We are proposing a mixture of all types of farming. We want farmers to get involved in this as a cultural activity. It involves a lot of locals coming on board, and that is what we want. In Belmullet at the moment, there are only a few farmers doing conservation farming. We want it to go to a position where it is not a taboo thing and encourage a lot of people to do it. It is a bit like the Greenway, once they got critical mass and got 60 percent of landowners involved they could convince most people this is a good thing.
“If nothing changes farming will become extinct as an occupation in a lot of the west of Ireland. If we value our local heritage someone will have to be there to maintain the farms and the practices. This will protect communities,” he said.

The Belmullet Festival takes place from August 15 to August 24, with Heritage Day taking place on August 21. The Cultural and Heritage Tent will be on American Street, with the first presentation at 11am on Heritage Day. ‘Conservation Farming for Corncrake & Twite’ with Feargal Ó Cuinneagáin and Liam Loftus, takes place from 2pm to 3pm, while ‘Removal of Invasive Species of Rhododendron and Wild Rhubarb’, with Phelim Doran, is from 3pm to 3.30pm. For more on the Belmullet Festival, visit belmulletfestival.ie.