Tuesday 31 March 2015

A Plea for Heather

What are to we to make of poor Heather's fate, a public enemy to be banished from farmlands, to be burned alive on the hillside, those who harbour her to be excluded and shunned. I don't know what she has done to deserve this because there was a time when was a favoured child, protected by powerful forces, her enemies slaughtered and dispersed by her allies. But now, these friends have turned on her with a vengeance. What has she done?

Sarcasm aside I am of course referring to the group of plant species commonly known as heather and in particular to the Dept.of Agriculture's recent decision to use these plants as a negative indicator for eligibility for key GLAS options.

A recent circular issued to farm advisors containing answers to commonly asked questions raises serious issues for the success of the GLAS scheme in commonage and upland areas. The issue of greatest concern here is the use of the mere presence of heather (at any level) to make entire land parcels ineligible for the Low Input Permanent Pasture Option in GLAS. This is the most generous option within the scheme and one that many farmers will depend on to build up their payments.

In effect the Dept. have selected heather as the definitive feature for the heath and blanket bog habitats which  they do not want used to draw down significant payments under GLAS. What they fail to appreciate is that heather is present in  a wide range of habitats, it is even found on limestone pavement in the Burren. In fact almost any open site with peat or leached acid soils in a high rainfall area could support heather species, as at least a minor component of the flora. In the west, upland grasslands, even those that are moderately grazed will almost always have some heather, flourishing in the more inaccessible parts or clinging to life in a tightly clipped and suppressed form. There is nothing wrong with this, it is a normal feature of these acid grasslands.

Completely uniform swards are not a feature of low intensity agriculture. Upland areas are typically mosaics of different vegetation types, a wet patch with rushes or irises, a sheltered gully supports shrubs and small trees, a well drained slope is cloaked with bracken, bluebells and primroses under its ferny canopy.  This variety is the norm, it is what gives these farmlands their character. Diversity of vegetation is what makes these areas different from intensively farmed monocultures, it is what makes them special and worth conserving. Surely the preservation of this variety is the very purpose of agri-environmental schemes. Heather is a part of this and yet the absolutist position adopted by the Dept. threatens all of it. To appreciate the impact of this policy we must consider the effect at farm and indeed landscape level as well as at land parcel level.

Contrary to what the Dept. of Agriculture would have you believe, very few farmers are going to get the maximum payment in GLAS from commonage alone. While most commonage farmers will benefit from the €120/ Ha payment on commonage and tier 1 priority access, they need to commit to options on their privately owned lands to build their payment to an acceptable level. In Connemara, the most useful of these options are Low Input Permanent Pasture and Stonewall Maintenance. The position in most other commonage areas is very similar.  If the LIPP option is removed as the Heather policy dictates, the attraction of the scheme for many will go with it. Without the structure of GLAS any revival of management on the commonage is undermined and the risk of abandonment grows. This is a cascade effect which will kill off agriculture in the most vulnerable of areas. It would be a perverse outcome of a policy which the Dept. may have seen as having a limited impact and is not in keeping with the schemes objectives.

I appreciate that the Dept. of Agriculture do not want LIPP to be used on bogs and heaths but the choice of heather as a definitive feature for eligibility is misguided. If they must have an indicator species for this purpose why not pick something with a stronger ecological link to blanket bog and wet heath such as Bog Cotton. This species is effectively restricted to these habitats and is easily identifiable by farmers, advisors and Dept. officials.  But irrespective of the choice of indicator species, we must also recognise the variety of vegetation types that exists over even relatively small land parcels and accept that this diversity is  a good thing, something to be cherished and protected not to be a reason for exclusion. 

All of this could be resolved by accepting predominantly grassland parcels, with say over 90% grassland as being eligible for the LIPP option. It is not too late, this is a matter of interpretation and the removal of a major obstacle to participation could be done at the stroke of a pen.

Deal with this before permanent damage is done.

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