Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Tuesday, 13 May 2014
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine
Maximising the Usage and Potential of land (Resumed): Bord na Móna and UCD
The next topic for discussion is maximising the usage and potential of land. I remind all members and witnesses to turn off their mobile phones, please.
I welcome the delegation from Bord na Móna which comprises Mr. Pat Ring, head of property development, Mr. Gerry Ryan, secretary and head of land and property, and Dr. Catherine Farrell, senior ecologist. I thank them for coming before the committee today to discuss today's topic.
Before we begin, I draw witnesses' attention to the fact that, by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, they are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise nor make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
I invite Mr. Ryan to make his opening comments.
Mr. Gerry Ryan:
I thank the Chairman and members of the committee for giving us the opportunity to make a presentation today on Bord na Móna's land use. As the Chairman said, I am responsible for land and property at Bord na Móna. I am joined by my two colleagues, Mr. Pat Ring, head of property development, and Dr. Catherine Farrell, senior ecologist.
As the Chairman and the committee will know, Bord na Móna is 95% owned by the State and was originally established in 1946 to develop some of Ireland's extensive peat resources, primarily at that time for fuel and energy. Today, we are active in a number of industrial sectors, including conventional and renewable energy generation, commercial and domestic fuels, horticultural growing media, wastewater treatment and air pollution abatement, as well as a resource recovery facility in north Kildare.
We employ a core workforce of approximately 1,800 people and a seasonable workforce of around 600 people during the summer months. Last year our average employment numbers were just over 2,000 and the turnover made by the company was just over €425 million. Our head office is located in Newbridge and we have operations in Ireland, the UK and the US. We sell our products into more than 20 countries.
Today's meeting is related to maximising the usage and potential of land so we will focus primarily on our lands, in particular our views on potential uses for cutaway bogs. Our lands extend in total to about 80,000 hectares throughout the country, mainly located in the midlands but in some other areas, particularly north-west Mayo. This vast resource is characterised by fragmentation. We have in excess of 130 individual bogs, many of which comprise numerous individual land parcels. We have made a submission to the committee and, in addition, we have submitted two reports that we believe are relevant for the committee's consideration. One is entitled the Strategic Framework for the Future Use of Peatlands and the second is our biodiversity action plan. I will hand over to Mr. Ring who will expand further on our land bank and plans for future land use options. He will be followed by Dr. Farrell who will provide more detail on our bog restoration projects and ecosystem services. We will take any questions that arise during the meeting.
Mr. Pat Ring:
I will provide further information to the committee on Bord na Móna's land bank. I will also provide information on a framework that we have developed to help us examine potential future uses of peatlands, particularly peatlands at the cutaway stage.
Bord na Móna owns approximately 80,000 hectares of land and it is important to say that this is predominantly peatlands. In other words, it is quite different from mineral soil even when it reaches the cutaway stage.
The land bank consists of 130 bogs units, mainly in the midlands with some on the west coast. The bogs are large in scale and complexity and have the potential to revegetate. The depth of peat that remains after production will vary considerably, and some bogs, particularly those in the Shannon catchment area, are under the water table so they are supported by bog pumping operations.
Slide No. 3 provides an outline of current land use in Bord na Móna. It shows that three quarters of the land is involved in peat production activities and this supports our energy, fuels and horticultural businesses and factories. One quarter of the land is either cutaway or will not be used for production in the future. Current after-use options include wind energy, biodiversity, amenity uses and forestry.
It is useful to provide some background on how thinking has evolved in respect of peatlands and their use. Originally, in the 19th century, peatlands were seen as wastelands with potential for agriculture if they could be drained. In the 20th century, the value of peatlands for industrial development became obvious, and subsequently large areas were developed on an industrial scale. With that, the question arose of what would become of the land when the peat production phase came to an end. At the time, the view was that the use would be for agriculture and horticulture. However, the reality proved to be more difficult and complex. Extensive trials had been carried out over many decades by Bord na Móna working in collaboration with partners such as Coillte, COFORD and UCD. For economic and technical reasons, the use for agriculture and horticulture is realistically unviable and the potential for forestry is limited. More recently, there is huge growth in recognition of the biodiversity value of peatlands. Cutaway bogs present a range of complex issues that require to be considered bog by bog. To that end, we have carried out a body of work reviewing the work done over the decades and seeking to develop a framework to assist us in examining future land use options.
Slide No. 5 provides a broad outline and overview of what we refer to as a strategic framework for future land use. Each of the 130 bog units will be assessed on the basis of eight key factors, which are shown in the diagram. Number 1 refers to the physical nature of the bog, the second refers to its location in comparison with key infrastructure, which is critical, as is No. 3, the timeframe for peat extraction. No. 4 refers to the economics of any after-use proposal and No. 5 refers to the national and regional needs. Bord na Móna is of the view that our cutaway peatlands have an important role to play in meeting national requirements for renewable energy, water storage, amenities and biodiversity. No. 6 refers to legislation and regulation, and any future development must comply with relevant legislation. No. 7 relates to land use planning policies, and any future land use must conform with national, regional and local policies. No. 8 is the local issues and local consideration, which are very important. These include providing employment and places for amenities and recreation. All these factors and the complex issue of projecting future land use is covered under the land use review system, which will be dynamic in nature and will allow for changes in regulation or land use policy in future years.
In terms of overall land use strategy, the object of Bord na Móna is to balance and optimise the commercial, social and environmental value of its resources. Bord na Móna will actively pursue the full potential of its land bank for a variety of appropriate future land uses. The land bank will be developed with regard to commercial benefits and the national interest. Bord na Móna will interact with other policy-making bodies, such as regional and local authorities, to achieve it. Cutaway bogs present a range of complex options that require to be considered bog by bog.
Biodiversity and ecosystem services comprise an important issue when considering future land use options. Biodiversity provides a contribution to wealth and health through the ecosystem services and consequently has economic value. Bord na Móna lands identified as having high biodiversity value or priority habitats will be reserved for that purpose as the principal future land use. Some level of remediation, with consequent cost, is required for all future land use and many of the options we look at are compatible and can be co-located. For example, biodiversity is compatible with and can be co-located with wind energy, and water storage options are compatible with amenities.
I will summarise with some of the key land use options under consideration. Wind energy is a key land use option at present. Bord na Móna has been active in wind energy projects for 20 years and we believe cutaway peatlands have significant potential to meet Ireland's renewable energy targets. Cutaway peatlands typically have a good wind regime and they are remote, with no residences within the bog and, typically, a low number of residences on the periphery. We also look at amenities and tourism as important options. To date, we have focused our resources in developing the Lough Boora site in County Offaly. It is a cutaway bog that has been developed for amenity and biodiversity purposes and it has cycleways, walking tracks, lakes and a sculpture park. It is a fine local amenity and we are working to develop Lough Boora further for improved visitor facilities for local visitors and people from further afield. High value biodiversity is a key consideration and my colleague Dr. Farrell will talk about that in more detail. Industry and infrastructure have a place in the future land use of cutaway peatlands. Some examples include Drehid Resource Recovery Park in County Kildare and a smaller development in Derryarkin Sand and Gravel Limited, a joint venture with Roadstone Holdings.
I also mentioned forestry, and significant areas of land have been leased to Coillte since the 1980s. However, growing performance has been disappointing and while forestry considers to be considered, at this stage it seems unlikely it will present major opportunities in terms of after-use options. My final slide seeks to paint a picture of what a future peatland landscape may look like, showing renewable energy being garnered from wind, wetland areas, and an area rich in biodiversity and amenities for local communities and employment creating opportunities.
I will hand over to my colleague, Dr. Catherine Farrell, who will talk about ecosystem services and bog restoration projects in Bord na Móna.
Dr. Catherine Farrell:
I will say a few words on the mapping system in terms of how we plan our land use and get to grips with what is out there across the full holdings of 80,000 hectares. I will hint at some of the other ecosystem services benefits, such as biodiversity, carbon and then, of course, cultural landscape.
What is a cutaway bog? What sort of landscape does that present to us? For the most part, that is what we are talking about today. It is very different from a raised bog. A lot of people might confuse cutaway bogs. We cannot restore these bogs to active raised bogs. For the greater part of it, one essentially has a new landscape. Peat has been removed so what one has is a very different landscape which has varying depths of peat and varying drainage regimes and, as Mr. Ring hinted, significant areas moving towards wetlands into the future.
When peat production stops in an area, generally, what one is left with is a bare landscape. Within a couple of months of production stopping, we start to see natural colonisation happening across the peatland. This gives rise over time to a range of different habitats, and at this time we are mapping the habitats emerging on the cutaway bogs with a view to determining how all of our bogs will develop in terms of whether they will be wetland or woodland habitat and how those habitats can contribute in lots of senses to carbon services and benefits into the future and also to biodiversity networks. At this point in time, we are of the mind that roughly 30% of our lands would be going towards wetland and the remainder towards scrub-woodland type habitats. The benefits to natural colonisation and, where necessary, targeted rehabilitation is that our lands will be environmentally stabilised and we will have this rich diverse landscape. Also, that will have an impact on other services such as water quality into the future.
I will show members an example of one of the sites we have. Ballycon bog is adjacent to the Mount Lucas wind farm site, which some members may have been on. It is roughly 200 hectares and has been out of peat production for more than ten years. We have zoned this area as a biodiversity area. In terms of how we map these areas, we have an extensive GIS database. We have a layer which identifies the generic land use in the area. This is a biodiversity area, with some Coillte plantation to the west of the site. The map on the top right shows the current habitats on the site, so it is a mosaic of wetland and emerging scrub. The map on the lower left is a lidar map that can inform us as to where wetlands will form. The one on the lower right is basically the future of this particular site and how it will look. We have a database and knowledge on more than 130 of our bog areas. We have a lot of information as to how these sites will develop into the future.
We talked about the cutaway bogs. We also have in our land bank roughly 2,500 hectares of bog that was never brought fully into peat production. We have identified those areas and have started a process of bog restoration on these sites. The benefits in terms of restoring active raised bog habitat is that a lot of these sites have been incorporated into the national network of special areas of conservation and natural heritage areas. The other side of it is the potential to use these sites for carbon offset into the future. The sites currently drained may continue to release carbon, but once one rewets these sites, one restores the carbon sequestration potential of the areas.
In terms of the carbon issue, obviously we will leave a lot of peat in the ground on our cutaway sites. We want to see what can happen when we rewet those areas. Can we maintain the carbon on site and, where possible, can we start to return these areas to carbon sequestration sites? We have invested in a number of greenhouse gas monitoring projects which link up with UCD and the Environmental Protection Agency. Hopefully, they will inform our land use decisions into the future.
I thank the witnesses for their presentations. I was under the impression 20 years ago that all of this land would be put to some commercial use, but what the witnesses seem to be indicating is that much of the land will return to some semi-natural state and that we will have wetlands, scrublands and so on. Is it the intention to use these lands as environmental areas and areas which people will study - in other words, as a national resource without a particular crop? I accept a certain amount of forestry is being done but I am talking about the areas that will be left in their natural states and that these will become an environmental resource. What proportion of the total land do the witnesses see as winding up either as wetlands or as other kinds of environmental areas but not cropped in any way?
Europe wants all these SACs and if so many people are so interested in preserving them, presumably people will be interested in looking at them, walking across them and studying them. We can bring all sorts of universities in and do long course on the biodiversity of Irish bogs and raised bogs and so on. I understand we will wind up with cutaway bog that will return to some kind of regenerative state. Bog that was never cut is a very high quality SAC and well worth protecting because it is very scarce in the European context. I mention all the things wetlands bring.
I do not know if it is an appropriate question to ask witnesses but in view of the land bank left and the nature of that land bank, would I be right to think that only a large semi-State body like Bord na Móna could possibly handle this, in particular since it will not result in a very direct commercial benefit? In other words, the benefit might be more a national pay-off rather than a pay-off for the company. Would the witnesses comment on that issue that these lands will not give the company a direct pay-off but, of course, they will be of huge national importance if we are to have all of this biodiversity, carbon sinks and so on which are important nationally but will not necessarily pay the company?
I thank the representatives of Bord na Móna for their presentations. I have two questions, one of which relates to what Deputy Ó Cuív said about the biodiversity element of future land use. Is Bord na Móna obliged to commercialise that or how does it see that developing in the future? It was said that ecosystem services have an economic value. Where does it see that being achieved?
I have a question on biomass production and I was surprised that was not in the presentations. I would have thought Bord na Móna would be ideally placed to carve out a role for itself in terms of the delivery of biomass in the economy. Renewable energy and renewables are something we need to look at for the future. What consideration has been given to the production of biomass in Bord na Móna's future development plans?
I acknowledge that the situation has improved greatly in recent years in terms of being able to use biomass in electricity generation. I see potential for the economy to develop an industry to provide biomass for renewable energy production, particularly electricity production. That would be a lot more productive than using the land for wind energy. The use of land for wind energy and forestry is passive in the context of the role of Bord na Móna. Finding some productive use for the land other than for wind energy would be more advantageous and beneficial to society.
I thank the witnesses for their presentations. The witnesses referred to lands being "environmentally stabilised". Will they explain what that means? When these lands are vacated, will they be wet or dry? I have the mindset that one would normally try to dry out wet ground. Diversity was also mentioned but is the idea of creating a national park just an easy way out? Should we not be looking at the possibility of producing food? Can animals graze some parts of this land? Can we develop biomass crops? If we do, have we any way of harvesting them if the ground is very wet?
I am certainly in favour of wind energy but have the witnesses done any analysis of the impact of getting 400 kV of energy from those sites? This is very topical at the moment with many people objecting to overground cables and pylons. Has this been examined thoroughly in the context of the concerns of the public? The picture on the presentation is lovely, with sailing boats, people strolling around and so forth, but realistically how much of the countryside do we need for boating and strolling around? I do not do much boating. Is there something sustainable here that will create wealth?
On the question of carbon sequestration, have the witnesses quantified that or put a value on it? If it was seen as a public good, in the context of what Deputy Ó Cuív said earlier about the value to the nation as opposed to Bord na Móna, what value would it have?
Mr. Gerry Ryan:
I thank the Chairman. I will deal with biomass first because it came up a number of times. We have examined in considerable detail the possibility of using our land bank to produce or grow biomass. Unfortunately, the efficiency of the crop which is produced relative to the input costs means it is not economically feasible. We have tried on a number of occasions to produce reasonable quantities of a number of different biomass crops on our lands, including willow, alder and miscanthus, but it is not economically feasible to grow it on our land bank after peat production. It would be fantastic for us if we could use the land for that purpose but it is not feasible to do so on an economic basis, unfortunately. Having said that, Bord na Móna has been a champion of the use of biomass in the energy sector in Ireland. In our Edenderry power station in County Offaly, more than 20% of the energy produced comes from biomass which is sourced almost entirely from within the Irish market. We also have a programme to encourage farmers to grow biomass on our behalf for use in the power station in Edenderry. That is on a small scale at the moment. It would be very helpful if more supports were available from the State in the context of renewable energy in general. Nevertheless, we have a programme up and running and a small number of farmers have undertaken to grow biomass on our behalf for use in the power station. Unfortunately, using our own land for biomass production is not an economically feasible proposition.
On wind energy, we have conducted a number of studies and developed two major wind energy farms in Mount Lucas and Bruckana in the midlands on our own lands, based on the normal planning regulations and permissions which apply. They are nearing completion and are very successful. Of course we do not envisage a situation where all the 80,000 hectares will be covered with wind farms, and the picture was certainly not meant to convey that. The vast majority of our land will be wetland of the type described by Mr. Ring and Dr. Farrell, and I will ask them to comment on that aspect.
Mr. Pat Ring:
There was a question from Deputies Ó Cuív and Barry on the value of future cutaway peatlands. Our overall strategy is to seek to generate commercial, environmental and social value. There is a clear focus on that in the sense that we are not just focused on amenity value and biodiversity. We fully accept and understand that commercial value must also be created. In our view, that would be driven by Bord na Móna and the value would accrue to the company. However, we understand that value should also accrue to the State in the context of the national interest, and we would see that the cutaway peatlands would have a value in terms of providing biodiversity and carbon storage while also providing solutions in the context of green energy and possibly water storage. The focus of Bord na Móna and this unit within the organisation is to look into the future at the emerging lands that will become available post peat production and to seek to generate value from them, whether commercial, environmental or social. We feel that getting the balance right is very important.
Dr. Catherine Farrell:
In response to Deputy Ó Cuív, interaction with these sites is very important and can be enormously beneficial, as can be seen clearly with the site at Lough Boora which has attracted a large number of visitors. We have a range of local community projects right across from Kildare to Galway and from Roscommon down to Tipperary. It is a great opportunity for communities to take ownership of a piece of cutaway bog, to have a walkway and to use the area productively, through interaction with local schools and so forth. The great thing about those sites is that rare species are coming in and using them and then people can get up close and personal with these species, which is very different from learning about them in a classroom. There is great potential from that perspective.
In terms of the national network of special areas of conservation and natural heritage areas, it is meant to be a robust network. It is not meant to be a network of isolated units that are expected to survive on their own. We are very aware of green infrastructure, connecting up the sites and trying to sustain the populations of these habitats and species into the future. We are working with the National Parks and Wildlife Service on that aspect.
In terms of putting a value on it, I take Deputy Barry's point. As a company we have tried to look at the value in terms of carbon and biodiversity. There are several international studies examining the economics of ecosystems and biodiversity, most notably the TEEB study led by Pavan Sukhdev. We are trying to lead on that front in Ireland and recently organised a meeting on the topic of natural capital and how we can start to put a value on very intangible benefits such as well-being, using the wetlands for filtration to obtain clean water and so forth. We do not have the accounting structure in place at this time to account for that.
We are working on that with other people. Carbon is a complex element, in particular in peatlands. We know that peat is a high carbon value product. When a peatlands is drained, there is carbon in the peat on site. We have a range of studies. In our study in County Mayo we are looking at what happens when we re-wet the cutaway bog. The cutaway is unique because it is an acidic peat medium which lends itself to the regeneration of bog mosses and therefore one can restore functional aspects of peatlands. The study has shown that we have returned the site in Mayo to a carbon sink. That is a great result if we can roll it out across the 6,500 ha of our bogs. We have shown that we can do it in core areas and we need to replicate that across the entirety of the site. Some figures put together tentatively would suggest there is some economic value. We work with the EPA on that. Mr. Phillip O'Brien, who I understand has come before this committee, is the person we engage with on that front and look at it as a potential offset from a national perspective.
In the midlands sites we are looking at re-wetted cutaway, which is re-wetted fen peat. In these cutaways the vegetation is typically sedge or reed. We do not know the answer to that yet. We will have data for two years in 2015. Intuitively one would think that the peat is still in the ground, so that means it is held in situcarbon. We have the reeds on top and that is accumulating biomass. The question is whether that is creating another carbon sink. We will know that in 2015, although with all these things, it is always a case that we need more studies to verify the data.
The other site we set up with the EPA in 2013 was a restored peatlands site. In the big picture, there will be a massive restoration programme in terms of the SSEs and NHAs, Again we will have two years data in 2015. I cannot answer the question, but we are building up the knowledge to feed into the answer.
Deputy Barry had a specific question on what we mean by the term "environmentally stabilised". When one has an active peat production unit, one essentially has bare peat fields. The words "environmentally stabilised" is the term used in our IPC licensing. Condition (10) of our IPC licence states that we need to have a rehabilitation plan for each of our bog units to ensure that the site is environmentally stabilised. That is to assure the licensing authority - in this case it is the EPA - that Bord na Móna does not walk away and leave what can only be described as "an open cast mine". Stabilisation is to ensure the soil is stabilised and there is no potential run off in the future.
I vaguely understand that point. When I asked the question I was wondering if we could ever produce food in the cutaway. Obviously this land has produced an economic return from the employment generated by turf cutting. Other than using the cutaway for using up carbon, can we put sheep or other animals on it? Other than stabilising the site, is there any possibility of commercial agricultural activity on any of the 80,000 ha?
Mr. Gerry Ryan:
That is a good question, indeed it has exercised the minds of people in Bord na Móna ever since the 1940s. In the 1970s, we recruited people specifically with agricultural qualifications and degrees to determine whether it would be possible to create an agricultural enterprise from cutaway peatlands. We have a number of projects, not only the project close to Lough Boora which was formerly cutaway peatlands and is now agricultural grassland. The simple fact is that the economics of creating an agricultural grassland from cutaway peatlands does not justify the investment that is required to transform the landscape into an agricultural landscape. We would be delighted if the opposite was the case but unfortunately this is not our experience. That experience has been hard fought by investment and by trials of different types of agriculture, not just animal husbandry but also crop production, such as cereal crops. We have tried different things at different times since the 1970s and unfortunately none has proved to be economically viable. There is no agricultural use in that sense.
Moving on from biomass, we told about converting grass to gas. Bioethanol is probably the most efficient way of doing it because one can have a crop that can be produced three, four or five times a year depending on the variety, but one needs a critical mass of 200 ha to 300 ha for production. It is not something that one can bring the product very far to by use of anaerobic digesters. I presume that will be dependent on the value refits that would be applied. which will determine the economic value.
The reason we asked specifically about the carbon value of sequestration is that if we are to produce off the other land that we can produce food from and we know we can do it, we are looking for a counter credit argument. Between Bord na Móna and Coillte, there is more than 500,000 ha of land, there is in the order of 2 million ha in pasture production and whatever is in arable production. Deputy Barry would probably have a better idea than I have about that. It could be a couple of hundred thousand hectares. There is a significant percentage of land that is in non-agricultural us and there is potential carbon storage sequestration that should be a mitigating factor for Food Harvest 2020.
The next presentation will be on the sustainable way of achieving that but the main purpose of our meeting is to produce an argument for Ireland's case. Bord na Móna is a key player as we see it.
Mr. Gerry Ryan:
The cost of the input to produce a reasonably dense crop of biomass is very significant. Obviously the refit is how one gets paid for using biomass in the power station. Clearly one is related to the other. If there was a higher refit regime, that would affect the economics of it. Based on the current regime, it is not economically feasible.
It might be useful to get that research and we could get it on the Library and Research page. It might form part of a justification, if things stack up. If we were to up production of biofuels of some description, using either grass, willow or miscanthus and that would benefit Ireland's greenhouse gas targets, one would need an incentive to so do. One could make an economic argument for the incentive being put in place because of other factors.
It might be useful if we were to have a look at that data. I anticipate that we would recommend in our submission that it would be looked at.
I thank the delegates and members. Two Senators had to speak in the Chamber, and had apologised earlier that they would not be able to stay for the whole meeting.
I welcome Dr. Helen Sheridan and Dr. Paul Murphy of the UCD School of Agriculture and Food Science. I thank them for coming before us today to brief the committee on the issue of land use, which we are considering. I know they were in the Gallery when I read the privilege notice earlier in the meeting, but I am obliged to do so again. Witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the joint committee. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against a person or an entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. Members have already been reminded of what is expected of them. I understand that both Dr. Sheridan and Dr. Murphy will make opening statements. I invite Dr. Sheridan to address the committee.
Dr. Helen Sheridan:
I thank the Chairman and the members for this opportunity to make a presentation to the committee. Agriculture has probably never before faced so many potentially conflicting challenges at global and national scale. We need to increase food production while reducing our reliance on fossil fuels and maintaining and in some cases improving the status of our natural resources. I have tried to depict some of these challenges in the first slide.
From a national perspective, Food Harvest 2020 sets out a vision for smart and green growth in agricultural output in the case of the dairy sector, and value-added growth in the case of the beef and sheep sectors. In terms of the green dimension, the document states:
Ireland can become synonymous with the production of environmentally sustainable and welfare friendly products. This should result in consumers in key markets recognising implicitly that, by buying Irish, they are choosing to value and respect the natural environment.Essentially, we need to achieve this to prove our green credentials. When we discuss meeting our production targets, we naturally look to areas in which we have a competitive advantage to help achieve this. I suggest that the exact same approach is required if we are to prove our green credentials. We need to identify areas in which we have a natural competitive advantage and focus our marketing campaigns on them, to some degree at least.
Obviously, we cannot measure all components of biodiversity. We have taken the approach of using semi-natural habitat cover as an indicator of wider biodiversity. We know we have major issues and challenges surrounding much of the approximately 13% of terrestrial land that has been designated as a Natura 2000 site. This has been reported to the EU Commission. We will have to work very hard to comply with the requirements of the habitats directive in this respect. I do not want to dwell on this today, however, as many of the species and habitats of concern will require detailed site and species conservation plans which will need to be developed and implemented on a case-by-case basis. I will focus on habitats that are not afforded protection under the habitats directive. These occur on farms throughout the country. While they might not be rare from a national or international perspective, their continued existence is fundamental to the provision of ecosystem services that underpin agricultural production systems.
Our research group has undertaken habitat surveys on approximately 170 grassland farms throughout the country to date. During this work over 6,000 ha of land were mapped in terms of their habitat composition. The results of this work revealed that, on average, approximately 14% of grassland farm area is under semi-natural habitat. As members can see from the next slide, this level of semi-natural habitat cover varies by region and farming system. However, the overall data show we have retained a good base of semi-natural habitat in our farmed landscape. This gives us a competitive advantage over some other European countries, such as the Netherlands, France and Poland. The Netherlands is estimated to have estimated to have 2.1% of farm area under semi-natural habitat cover. The figure in France varies between 2% and 12% depending on the region. The figure in Poland varies between 1% and 4%. As these countries have a greater proportion of arable land, a direct comparison is impossible.
The challenge for us is to create a link between biodiversity and Irish produce in the minds of consumers. Research we are undertaking along with our colleagues in Teagasc is focusing on the development of a user-friendly, non-specialist method of recording this diversity, such that a biodiversity index could be generated for farms. This type of approach has a role to play in terms of providing justification to EU taxpayers for the continuation of CAP payments. As the next slide illustrates, CAP expenditure as a proportion of the overall EU budget has decreased by approximately 30% over the last 25 years. It is likely that there will be pressure to continue this downward trend in the coming years. This is particularly relevant in an Irish context. Results from the national farm survey suggest direct payments comprise an average of 81% of total farm income, with beef and sheep farms operating at a loss in the absence of these payments. While the implications of greening have largely been limited to arable farms within this round of the CAP, it is quite conceivable that the requirement to retain ecological focus areas might be extended to grassland farms in the future. I must also caution against complacency, however. While the habitats are present at the moment, the ecological condition of some of them is dubious. For example, approximately 50% of the field margins and field boundaries surveyed were in poor ecological condition. Therefore, retention alone will not secure the long-term future of these habitats - the development of appropriate management regimes is also necessary.
The land sparing approach may seem like an attractive proposition as we seek to achieve the targets outlined in Food Harvest 2020. This approach involves certain areas of the country being maximally intensified while other areas, which might be less amenable to intensification due to soil type, etc., are used to make up for the loss in habitats and associated biodiversity. Ecosystem services take place at different scales. We know that organic matter breakdown, nutrient cycling, etc., are necessary at the field scale. Therefore, it follows that the biodiversity necessary to facilitate these processes must also be present at field scale. While a degree of intensification and expansion will inevitably take place, it will be necessary to manage this process so that both production and biodiversity objectives can be met. This is known as the land sharing approach. In some cases - the dairy sector, for example - a degree of land use intensification and associated habitat removal relative to other sectors has already taken place. The restoration of biodiversity may be important in these instances.
The next slide indicates that we have a good degree of knowledge about some techniques to restore at least some degree of biodiversity within these types of situations. I refer, for example, to the use of sown field margins. These techniques can be very effective because they take up a limited proportion of the farm area, and therefore have a minimal impact on productivity, while delivering on biodiversity. It is important to point out that this knowledge has been gained over a series of postgraduate studies undertaken as part of a long-term experiment that was initially established in 2002. I refer to this to make the point that research in agro-ecology is a slow process.
While results of experimental work are generated in a three or four year PhD, it is longer-term research which provides much more reliable information in terms of persistence of treatment effects. This is particularly important when we consider the development of measures for inclusion within agri-environment schemes.
I will now address the issue of resource use efficiency. Much of the grassland research which has been undertaken in the past 50 years or thereabouts has largely focused on varieties of a couple of species, with perennial ryegrass receiving by far the most attention. While perennial ryegrass varieties show many desirable agronomic traits, this is a highly nitrophilous species. Singular reliance on high input grass monocultures is becoming less economically viable and socially acceptable. The ability to produce high yields of good quality forage, at minimal cost to farmers and with minimal impact on natural resources, is fundamental to the sustainability of future growth in Irish grass-based farming systems. As the next slide shows, recent research has found that the production potential of multi-species grasslands, which may require comparatively lower levels of nutrient inputs, appears to have been greatly underestimated.
Our research groups is investigating the yields, quality of forage, biodiversity support value and ensiling value of multi-species versus monoculture swards through a Department funded project known as SmartGrass. I must stress that the results presented in this slide are extremely preliminary, as they are based on dry matter yields from the first harvest taken from plots in April this year. However, members will note that the multi-species sward yields are showing potential at this stage. We will continue to monitor the plots over the next three years to get a handle on how persistent this effect is. Dr. Murphy will continue the presentation.
Dr. Paul Murphy:
I thank the Chairman and members for this opportunity to present to the joint committee. Picking up where Dr. Sheridan left off, I will focus more on water quality and, to a lesser extent, greenhouse gases, with more of a focus on more intensive systems in the agricultural sector, in particular, the dairy sector. As one of the key targets of the Food Harvest 2020 report is a 50% increase in output from this sector and with the milk quota system ending in 2015, the dairy sector deserves particular attention.
As the previous contributions from Teagasc and the Environmental Protection Agency have covered many of the salient points, I will not recap these. Instead, I will highlight some of the research in which I and my colleagues have been involved that may contribute to the work of the joint committee.
I will first introduce a widely used indicator of the environmental performance of a farming system, namely, the nutrient surplus. If we take the example of nitrogen, this surplus is equal to the import of nitrogen on to the farm in fertilisers and feed, for example, minus the nitrogen export off the farm in, for example, milk, animals and crops. The remaining nitrogen is the surplus and this will be either stored in the system or lost from the system to the environment. In the case of nitrogen, most of the surplus can be expected to be lost to the environment. This loss can have impacts on water quality through eutrophication and on greenhouse gas emissions when it is emitted as nitrous oxide, a potent greenhouse gas. Therefore, a lower nitrogen surplus for a farm indicates a lower pressure on the environment and a more sustainable system of production. There is a double dividend here in that lower surpluses also indicate more efficient use of nitrogen and a potentially more profitable system as nitrogen inputs in feed and fertiliser are one of the main variable input costs on any farm.
As part of the INTERREG funded Dairyman project, we examined nitrogen surpluses on 21 intensive Irish dairy farms and compared them to other published work internationally. The first slide shows this comparison across a number of countries. The reference to this work is provided at the bottom of the slide. It is clear that Irish dairy farms - shown on the left of the slide - have relatively low nitrogen surpluses by international standards. The first bar shown is from some further work I was involved in using data from 195 Irish dairy farms in the national farm survey. It shows the average surplus for Irish dairy farms at 143 kg of nitrogen per hectare, N/ha. The results of studies in other countries are also shown. The figure for Ireland is largely due to the relatively low input systems of dairy production that operate here, which are based mostly on grazed grass. This low nitrogen surplus is also associated with the relatively low carbon footprint of Irish milk production that was pointed out in a previous submission to the committee by Teagasc. Lower inputs and more efficient use of nitrogen fertilisers lead to lower surpluses and losses to the environment as the greenhouse gas nitrous oxide or to ground and surface water systems.
As I stated, we also studied nitrogen surpluses on a nationally representative sample of 195 Irish dairy farms. The reference to this work is provided at the bottom of the second slide. In this figure, we plot milk production per hectare on the horizontal axis against nitrogen surplus on the vertical axis. Members should bear in mind the average surplus of 143 kg N/ha we saw in the previous slide. We can see that this average value hides a range extending from less than 50 kg N/ha to more than 400 kg N/ha. I will highlight a few key points from this figure. First, if we look at a production level of 10,000 litres of milk per hectare, l/ha, as represented on the blue line on the slide, there is a range from farms operating a surplus of less than 50 kg N/ha to farms operating a surplus of almost 300 kg N/ha. This gives an idea of the range of variability in our production systems.
Second, this also indicates the potential room for improvement within our systems. What is the farmer with a nitrogen surplus of 50 kg N/ha doing that the farmer with a surplus of 300 kg N/ha is not doing? Many factors determine the surplus, some of which are beyond the direct control of the farmer. However, the management of the system is clearly a critical factor. In that case, what better management practices could be implemented to bring farmer A's nitrogen surplus closer to farmer B's surplus? Our research needs to identify these better management practices, our education and advisory services need to disseminate them and our policy framework needs to encourage them and give credit for them in areas such as greenhouse gas inventories, water quality programmes and even product labelling and marketing.
Third, in the context of the ending of quotas in 2015 and the Food Harvest 2020 targets for increased dairy production, if we consider a farmer who is currently producing at 5,000 litres of milk per hectare and plans to increase production to 10,000 litres of milk per hectare, we could consider, within the range of observable outcomes for Irish dairy farms, three different scenarios for achieving this increased output. The first of these, as shown on the second slide, would result in an increased nitrogen surplus. The second would result in no change in nitrogen surplus, while the third would result in a decrease in nitrogen surplus. Obviously, the third scenario is the optimal one in terms of the sustainability of the system and likely impacts on greenhouse gas emissions and water quality. Again, many factors influence the efficiency of nitrogen use and the resulting nitrogen surplus on a farm, some of which are beyond the control of the farmer. However, a large part of this is down to management.
I suggest that metrics such as nitrogen surplus could act as an indicator of the performance of a farm and could be used as management targets for farmers to try to achieve and to compare themselves to the top performers in their sector. This could be done in the context of farmer discussion groups, for example, in a similar way to the agronomic indicators such as herd economic breeding indexes, EBI, are done at the moment.
This approach was indicated in the previous Teagasc submission to this committee. Metrics such as this also have potential to be incorporated into more integrated measures of sustainability that could form the basis of some certification and product labelling that could allow Ireland to capitalise on the relatively low environmental footprint of its dairy production system.
The third slide deals with the fate of nitrogen and phosphorous on farms. Whether these result in greenhouse gas emissions or losses to water is dependent not just on management but on biophysical conditions. To illustrate this, I will show some results from the agricultural catchments programme. The reference to this work is provided at the bottom of the slide. This was a research programme in which I was involved and which was based primarily at Teagasc and funded by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. In this case, we compared two catchments dominated by arable farming. The catchments are instrumented to monitor nutrient loss in the stream draining the catchment. Under the nitrate regulations, soil phosphorous concentrations are divided into four indices.
As can be seen on the slide, index 4 is considered excessive and a potential risk for phosphorous loss to water. The two catchments have similar proportions of soils in index 4, indicating a similar level of pressure for phosphorous loss to water, from soils at least. We might expect in that case that they might have a similar outcome in terms of phosphorous loss to water. However, the result is that over the period monitored, the losses from one catchment were much higher than the other, roughly three times higher. What we found was that the principal apparent reason for this difference was that one catchment had predominantly well-drained soils while the other had predominantly poorly drained soils. The pie chart displays this result and indicates the area distribution of the different soil types and their drainage characteristics.
The catchment with the more poorly drained soils is more prone to generating overland flow run-off and this makes it more vulnerable to phosphorous loss, particularly during heavy rain events. This illustrates, and this is the reason I am showing this, the fact that biophysical conditions need to be accounted for and that one size does not fit all in terms of identifying better management practices to reduce emissions to air or water. The suite of better management practices that might be most effective may vary depending on factors such as soil type, climate and topography.
On the pressing question of whether the Food Harvest 2020 targets as well as Ireland's commitments on greenhouse gas emissions and water quality can be met, I would suggest that, in principle, they can. However, I would emphasise that this is only in principle. These targets pose a significant challenge to agriculture and other sectors of the economy and I would not under-emphasise these challenges. I would argue that management will be key to determining whether these targets can be achieved. In this, I refer to both the optimisation of land use at the catchment or landscape scale and also soil and nutrient management, which occurs more at farm level. The correct better management practices need to be identified and implemented. Ultimately, management on the farm determines the fate of nutrients, whether they are taken up in crops and animals or lost to the environment with a resultant impact.
Effective policy, therefore, needs to encourage better management practices that are effective at this scale. Already, the national action programme and the nitrates regulations target nutrient losses to water from farms, but there may be further scope for development of more integrated catchment or landscape management approaches addressing the full range of ecosystem services, land uses and stakeholders. I would argue that advisory, education and knowledge transfer will also be critical. Initiatives such as the Teagasc Better Farms, discussion groups and the SmartFarm programme point at innovative ways to encourage adoption of better management practices.
It is important that Ireland and the agricultural sector are able to get credit for improvements that are made - in greenhouse gas inventories and product labelling, for example. Emissions estimates, whether for greenhouse gases or emissions to water based on simple measures of intensity, can be misleading. Further work is required in this area. In terms of identifying suitable best management practices for different production systems and biophysical conditions, one size does not fit all. Future policies may need to be more flexible in this regard.
That was a very interesting presentation. We should give more recognition to what is going on in the universities. I have been arguing for some time that as part of our new REPS, GLAS and GLAS+, we should have a greenhouse gas emissions inventory. We should be measuring the greenhouse gas footprint of farms now. I would like to have a copy of the slides describing best management practices, if possible. They show how farmers can get increased yields without necessarily increasing greenhouse gas emissions. We need to start somewhere. If each farm has a management programme, this will help farmers get in the right frame of mind on this. Fertilisers have become incredibly expensive. We must try to persuade the Minister to look at this and to give farmers the extra moneys GLAS+ will bring for doing something which will have major benefits down the road for the reasons the witnesses have given.
In regard to phosphorous, I was always of the opinion that it was reasonably immobile in soil. Is Dr. Murphy suggesting that when a farmer spreads phosphorous, it is washed on and pellets go into the stream? The problem we have with phosphorous when spreading it is that it binds up and we find it difficult to get it into the plants. Now we are using a chemical called phosphite to try to promote root growth in the autumn. Has Dr. Murphy any recommendations in that regard? Often when we put in our P and K in the autumn if it is dry, we are afraid it might get bound up in soil. When Dr. Murphy spoke about poorly drained soils was he talking about clay soils? Most tillage is on reasonably good ground. Will he elaborate a little on this?
Sorry, it is relevant. I was just being flippant. In regard to the chart showing this April's yields, is there a question in regard to sustainability? Rye grasses are known to be fairly resilient generally, but one of the rye grasses is described as having a yield of 90,000 per hectare. This is quite low. I presume the reference is to chemical fertiliser rather than organic. In general, the yields are significantly better. I presume there are some timing issues with regard to when the grass becomes available in the grazing season and the length of it. If the figures given transpire to be true, this will obviously have a huge impact on us meeting our targets in regard to the nitrates directive. Also, do the other mixtures incorporate other species, such as red clover? What are the simple and complex mixtures normally - the six species and the nine species? Dr. Murphy may now give Deputy Barry the advice he wants.
Dr. Paul Murphy:
The issue with phosphorus is somewhat counter-intuitive in that way. Phosphorus is strongly bound in soils and for decades it was considered that phosphorus was not lost to water. The issue with phosphorus and water quality arises because although the quantities of phosphorus lost in the run-off of a field are rather small relative to the total amount of phosphorus the farmer is applying, the receiving water systems are very sensitive to even small concentrations. This is why when the farmer applies phosphorus it can and will get bound in the soil.
Let us consider the loss rates in the graph before the committee. The rates in kilogrammes per hectare are all well below 1 kg per hectare whereas a farmer could be applying 14 kg or 15 kg of phosphorus per hectare per year. Agronomically, it is not a loss to the farmer and he will not notice it but the impact is material. Surface water systems in particular are rather sensitive to phosphorus loss. That is the reason for it.
The classification of soils into poorly-drained and well-drained soils is sometimes related to clay content. The heavy clay-rich soils in some parts of the country mean that these soils are predominately poorly drained. However, it can be due more to the landscape position and whether the water table is close to the surface as well. It is not the case that only heavy clay soils are poorly drained. It can also be the landscape position. Does that answer the question?
You will note in Dr. Murphy's presentation that he refers to giving credit to the greenhouse gas inventories for certification for product labelling and marketing. That is referred to at least three times. This goes back to what Dr. Sheridan said earlier about biodiversity. Apart from anything else we have a higher percentage if we simply ensure it happens.
Dr. Sheridan made an interesting point about some of the existing hedgerows being in poor repair. After four rural environment protection schemes and two agri-environment options schemes and all the resulting hedgerows that were built I am surprised at that. Perhaps Dr. Sheridan can offer an observation.
Dr. Helen Sheridan:
The committee was inquiring about the other species in the mixes. We chose three functional groups of species with similar traits: three grass species, namely, perennial ryegrass, cocksfoot and Timothy; three leguminous species, namely, white clover, red clover and birdsfoot trefoil; and three herb species in the maximally diverse or nine species group, namely, ribwort plantain, chicory and yarrow. We do not know a great deal about grass availability during the year but we chose each of these species and we had three varieties of each species included in the mix, where possible. We have tried to get as broad a spectrum as possible with these varieties in terms of early, mid and late season yielding varieties. Time will tell. One of the main issues for us is the need to examine the digestibility and nutritional value of this forage for animals and that is something we will be examining. It is not enough to produce more, it must be of a suitable quality.
Reference was made to hedgerows. In the ecologically focused areas we have many hedgerows but they are more the butt of a ditch than anything else. At the moment we are not allowed to do much to poorly formed hedgerows containing only a few alders. These are not even hedgerows and they do not block cattle and so on. Is Dr. Sheridan suggesting we should go back and try to renew them by planting whitethorns and blackthorns and make them functioning ditches? Would that increase their biodiversity or make them more valuable?
Dr. Helen Sheridan:
Yes, but first I will deal with the other question in respect of the REPS and AEOS programmes. They have been in place and they have done a good deal. However, participation in the schemes was not mandatory; farmers did not have to go into them. The work we undertook was across the board and not necessarily on farms involved in agri-environment schemes.
Reference was made to the quality of the hedgerows. If we are going to extend their lifespan then we have to intervene because hedgerows have a limited lifespan if we do not intervene. This may involved coppicing, implanting etc. The decision will be on whether we do that or whether we base a marketing campaign around having all of these habitats in place. If we do that, then we must ensure the habitats included in any marketing campaign are of good ecological quality and not simply dying-out gappy hedgerows.
While we were involved in REPS we did a good deal of internal hedging for existing hedges but we could not take down the boundary ditch. The boundary ditch could have been in a terrible mess and good farming practice would suggest striping it down and plant a proper hedge in its place which could be managed subsequently. Many boundary hedges are simply scrub, weeds and bushes but not proper hedges. However, if a farmer touched his boundary fence he would have been prosecuted under the REPS. I always took the view that we should have examined this. Generally, farmers can see the practicality of having a proper hedge which increases biodiversity and so on. Anyway, we need to examine it more closely.
I accept that. It was because they were too wide and not really functioning. Let us reflect on the two presentations. There is some ongoing work in the trialling but by 2015 or 2016 we will have a better idea. The same applies in the Bord na Móna case with regard to the ecological reinstatement and its value from the point of view of carbon sequestration. The company is unsure whether it can reinstate it. We are in the same position with the long-term efficiency of grass and amending or changing the traditional method of grass production.
I thank both deputations for coming in. It is clear that there is a good deal of work under way and many areas of expertise from organisations. We are trying to bring a central focus to it in order that we can present something to the Commission. The idea is to present Ireland's case and have it bound up, pulling together all the research and trialling that is under way and to put all the arguments together. The research service in the House has been helping us. This has been very useful. There are three farmers left in the meeting and therefore it has probably been more technical in nature than many of our presentations. The two Senators who are farmers were unable to remain but that is not to say we are not interested. This is most useful. The final slide, which is still before the committee, is the case for the defence. In a way it summarises how this is manageable and how we can make the case. It is important that we try to hone in on the principles in that summary slide as the backbone and what we are trying to build around it. For that, I thank you.