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Farming for nature to meet the crises

Outdoor Living

SYMBIOTIC RELATIONSHIP Farmers who allow the perimeters of their fields to rewild should be generously compensated.

Nature and Rewilding
Pat Fahy

Farmers occupy a special place in our society. For centuries, when food was actually a valued commodity and not cheap or throwaway, the farmers were essential life-givers.
Modern farming methods were supposed to bring prosperity of the kind that previous generations could only dream, but despite intensification and increased productivity, farming families are facing an income crisis, and we see the sharp end of this in the recent beef-sector protests. A fall in consumer demand and increasing imports from South America are among the problems the beef farmer faces.
But farming has the capacity to help solve the climate and biodiversity crises. The valuable product of this eco-service is called ‘Nature Capital’, and it’s worth paying for – and being paid to plant native woodlands and meadows or protect peat bogs could generate important fresh sources of income for farmers.
Trees are the best way to remove CO2 from the atmosphere, and Ireland’s Climate Action Plan commits to planting 22 million trees a year for the next 20 years as part of the overall strategy to combat climate change. However, some people, like Peadar Collins, director of the Crann – Trees for Ireland charity, have their reservations.
Collins feels that farmers are wary of forestry, as it ties up their land permanently, and so he doesn’t foresee a large take-up. However, he does suggest encouraging farmers to plant around the perimeter of their fields.
Maybe rewilding the perimeters of fields would be an even better option for farmers. They could be offered generous compensation by giving double the normal international carbon price per tonne of CO2 captured plus some carbon tax income, ringfenced for this purpose. Ultimately, the farmer must not be worse off for providing the service, and we all would benefit.
Scientists say it’s too late to prevent catastrophic climate change by solely reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. As well as rapidly phasing out fossil fuels, the world also needs to deploy so-called negative-emissions technology to draw down large amounts of the CO2 that is already in the atmosphere.
Many believe that nature restoration, via rewilding, is the cheapest and simplest way to do this. Ultimately, to save the planet, we may need to give land back to nature.
Ireland’s foremost expert on rewilding is Pádraic Fogarty of the Irish Wildlife Trust. In August, he told The Irish Independent: “We have a mental block about letting nature do its thing. We see a space recovered by nature and we think it’s just scrub or wasteland and want to get it back ‘under control’, whereas if we just left it alone , the forest would come back all by itself.”
Referring to successful rewilding initiatives in parts of Scotland, he said: “They’ve shown you can get amazing results within 10-15 years. You don’t get ancient oaks but you get birch, willow and mountain ash which are all fast-growing, and then the others come with time.”
When we are working out how to tackle this climate crisis, it is important that we really think about the most effective, most efficient and most sustainable ways to turn this emergency around. Whatever ecosystem services we get behind, they must provide critical life-support and wellbeing services, not just for those being affected now, but for our future generations of farmers and all the people of Ireland.

> Pat Fahy is Biodiversity Officer with Westport Tidy Towns.