Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees

Tuesday, 2 November 2021

Joint Oireachtas Committee on Climate Action

Reduction of Carbon Emissions of 51% by 2030: Discussion (Resumed)

Dr. Brendan Dunford:

It is a pleasure to be here and I thank the committee for the opportunity to address it today. I hope my contribution will be of relevance to the committee's urgent and important work. When I was thinking about how best to contribute to that work, I felt that the experience we have in County Clare of working with farmers, scientists and others to address environmental challenges in the Burren for over two decades might provide both learning and inspiration.

I will relate a short story first of all. In the late 1990s, the relationship between farming and environmental interests in the Burren was very broken, much as it appears to be today at a national level. The main source of frustration at the time was the introduction of special areas of conservation, SAC, designations which farmers felt severely restricted their freedom to farm and to earn a living.

These designations were intended to curb damaging activities to the greatest jewel in Ireland’s crown, the Burren, but how could this be done without the support and engagement of those who owned the land, the livestock and the knowledge needed to look after it? The first, small step to resolving this dilemma, and a very important one, was taken by local farm leaders, in particular Michael Davern, who felt that, with these new environmental challenges, there also had to be opportunities. “Better to light a candle than curse the dark” was the strategy. This brave local leadership, and there is a great example of it here today in Donal Sheehan, quickly unlocked the support of research institutions such as UCD, Teagasc and the National Parks and Wildlife Service, and led to the EU-funded BurrenLIFE project which went on to co-create, with farmers, a blueprint for sustainable farming in the region. This research and strong local support in turn unlocked CAP funding via the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine to enable the roll-out of the Burren programme across 23,000 ha of land in the region, and this programme continues today.

This journey, of which I have been privileged to be part, along with many exceptional colleagues, including those with me here today, is still a work in progress, as it must remain. However, much has been achieved. For example, an external evaluation in 2020 found that the Burren programme had generated €33 million worth of landscape and biodiversity improvements, a €23 million boost to the local economy and an additional €9.4 million in payments to local farmers. Therefore, sustainable management can pay and can deliver for the local community.

The question is what we can learn from this case study in addressing Ireland’s current and deeply interwoven climate and biodiversity emergencies. The answer is “quite a lot”, and I would like to distil these learnings under three headings: the pocket, the head and the heart. With regard to the pocket, we must understand farming is a business but in most cases the farmer is only paid for one of the ecosystem services generated - food – and often at the expense of others, such as biodiversity, water quality and carbon, for which there is a demand but not a market. In the Burren, we addressed this by developing a simple scorecard to capture these services at field level on a scale of one to ten, and linking these scores to payments, thereby putting a price on biodiversity and water quality. Farmers quickly responded, sometimes very innovatively, to this clear incentive, and they were also able to avail of additional capital funding to address particular challenges on their farms, such as protecting vulnerable springs or removing invasive scrub, which further improved their field scores and payments.

Through this payment for performance system, farmers felt respected, they had more freedom to farm and to innovate and payments were seen as hard earned but fair, unlike the standard compensation and penalty-based approaches. For the taxpayer, the system offers a guarantee that if a farmer delivers less, he or she gets paid less. For the policymaker, the system generates real-time data on programme impact, which in the Burren’s case has been an annual improvement in the region’s environmental health over the past decade, bucking national trends.

There is no reason such results-based incentives cannot be mainstreamed. The science is there in terms of scorecards for a variety of habitats, species and environmental priorities, including carbon sequestration. Thanks to this work, much of it initiated and led by Dr. James Moran, Ireland is considered to be a European leader in results-based payments. It is vital the new Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, strategic plan builds meaningfully on this reputation and this opportunity.

With regard to the head, to farm for nature and climate, farmers need better research, advice and support, just as they receive if farming beef, dairy or tillage. That this support is provided at a local level is critical because farmers have such a strong sense of the local but also because ecosystem services are very place specific. In the case of the Burren programme, having a local support office in Carran has built a strong sense of pride and ownership among farmers and relieved them of much of the bureaucratic burden that often plagues such schemes.

The third piece of the jigsaw, which is often overlooked, is the heart. If any of us are passionate about what we do, we will do it better, and farmers are no different. We urgently need to reimagine the role of farmers as first responders to our climate and biodiversity emergencies. It is very important we reimagine what farming is about and what it can deliver for society. We need to encourage farmers to embrace this role wholeheartedly, which is quite a challenge. In the Burren, a local charity, the Burrenbeo Trust, has run stewardship courses in local schools from which several thousand Burren children, the future guardians of the landscape, have graduated. Monthly walks and talks, often led by local farmers, and a Winterage festival and school on sustainable farming are among the many initiatives created by Burrenbeo to empower farmers and build bridges of understanding between farmers and the wider public.

In 2018, with Bord Bia support, Burrenbeo established the Farming for Nature Ambassadors initiative, identifying exemplary farmers across Ireland and sharing their stories through videos, farm walks and webinars. These farmers, among them Donal Sheehan, are reframing the negative narrative around farming and the Irish environment, reimagining the role of the farmer and sharing invaluable knowledge and inspiration among their peers. I congratulate Norman and Michael Dunne, who are this year’s public vote winners of the Farming for Nature Ambassadors award. They are amazing tillage farmers from County Kildare.

If Irish farmers can take more ownership of the environmental agenda and be supported and rewarded, as Burren farmers have been, then we can have real hope of Ireland becoming the green heart of the European Green Deal and of creating a brighter future for our rural people and places.


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