Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees

Wednesday, 1 December 2021

Joint Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine

Common Agricultural Policy and Young Farmers: Engagement with Macra na Feirme

Mr. John Keane:

I thank the Senator for his kind remarks. I will direct them to Ms Gillian Richardson, who is attending remotely. He spoke about professionalism and the slickness of the documents, and I assure him she is almost the sole person responsible for that and she puts in a great deal of effort to it. I pass all those kudos, therefore, to Ms Richardson.

On hedgerow management, I might bring in Mr. Fitzgerald. The Senator referred to pastures and the age of calving. Hedgerow management is critical and is even called out in an advisory document from the EU about developing our CAP strategic plan, whereby Ireland benefits and has the advantages of one of the highest shares of farmland given away to permanent grassland but which also has a well-established network of hedgerows that support rich biodiversity and its protection and enhancement, which is important. Our network of hedgerows averages in the region of 7% or 8% of the coverage across the country in terms of area.

From a management point of view, we recognise the importance to nature of ensuring hedgerows provide a biodiverse rich nature for habitats, creatures, insects and nesting birds. That is part of what we need to deliver under the CAP. It is not about reinventing the wheel. We have hedgerows on every farm across the country. Therefore, why would we not use them to our benefit and to provide an opportunity for habitats, biodiversity and all of that development?

Moving on specifically to what we are looking for, the Senator mentioned the document and reference was made to some of the research. The research indicates a hedgerow which is 2.5 m to 3 m wide at the bottom and between 1.5 m to 2 m wide at the top is the most beneficial, secure and provides the most opportunity for nesting birds, biodiversity and habitat development. If we are to develop a scheme it should enhance the value of develop hedgerows towards those measurements. The geotagging app has been used for on-farm measurements. Farmers provide those data and they can be marked on a map, as well as where a photograph was taken. Those are measures that can be used to monitor and develop a progression model for hedgerow development over a number of years. We recognise some of the other measures within eco-schemes, whether it be the planting of trees or hedgerows, can be knitted within this measure to improve the overall biodiversity benefit of hedgerows across farms. We recognise that is a crucial way to move forward. Integrated management policy is a gap within those eco-schemes. The Department has highlighted eco-schemes are open to all farmers and there is an opportunity for them to access them. Integrated hedgerow management is a measure that can be adopted by almost every farmer, if not all farmers, across the country and it can provide a benefit to the farmer, shelter for animals, a habitat and a biodiverse rich nature for nature on farms.

We have mentioned the age of calving, faecal egg sampling and milk recording. We recognise their benefit and have suggested their use to the Department. The feedback has been that, from an environmental point of view, they are quite sector-specific in terms of milk recording. However, with respect to faecal egg sampling and milk recording in the context of antimicrobial resistance and looking to the farm to fork strategy - around which policy is being developed as we speak at European level that will come into effect in the next few years - and the reduction targets around that, and it being called out as one of the seven measures which can be used within eco-schemes, as required by the European Commission from which the Government can select, it would be a missed opportunity not to use those, partly because it can benefit antimicrobial resistant targets at an EU and farm-to-fork level, which will be translated to Government level, and, from a farmer's point of view, it can be used as a practical tool to reduce the antibiotics usage on farms, ensure more appropriate use of them such that they can be specifically targeted when needed. That can provide benefits for the environment and animals and it would enhance our reputation as a sector on the international scene from a market point of view. The figures indicate Irish farmers are already among the best in Europe on our antibiotic usage. We are leaders on it. Our application of them is less than half the EU average. Those are measures that would further develop and enhance that reputation, while also providing benefits to the environment, animal welfare and meet our objectives under the farm to fork strategy. This would be a benefit for all sectors.

Extended grazing has been called out in a Commission communication to our Department. We have seen the average grazing period of animals across the Europe Union, depending on the member state, ranges from zero up to 80 or 90 days. We are a complete outlier in having a grazing period of 190 to 210 days. As progressive young farmers, we are driving the environmental benefits of extended grazing. Teagasc studies and research on the sector's climate contributions and the emissions profile when animals are out at grass show that emissions are significantly decreased when animals graze outside versus when they are housed. That is related to the make-up of their diet. Freshly grazed forage cover from grass at a low cover, which many young farmers are doing, reduces methane output, and the emissions profile of those animals. Why would we not seek extended grazing or a days-at-grass measure as a key component of an eco-scheme? Given the nature of our enterprises and our livestock sector and the green image we portray across the world, which is reflected in what we do, outdoor grazing of beef animals or dairy cattle benefits the environment in respect of their emissions profile, it benefits animal welfare and it drives on-farm profitability in ensuring, most importantly, as touched on by Mr. Fitzgerald, that our sector remains viable into the future. Mr. Fitzgerald might comment on that also.