Saturday 11 April 2015


 Land Eligibility, Vegetation Succession and the Law of Unintended Consequences.

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The recent fires in Killarney National Park, in the Slieve Aughties and elsewhere have been very dramatic. Without doubt they have had a very negative impact on wildlife with nesting birds in particular badly affected. Tackling fires costs a great deal of money, it diverts Fire Brigade and Defence Force assets with consequent impacts on the provision of cover elsewhere, property is put at risk and potentially lives are endangered. It is almost certain that these fires were started by people, whether intentionally or accidentally, perhaps for a specific purpose such as clearing gorse, perhaps just reckless arson. Irrespective of the immediate cause we have to look further back to understand the factors contributing to these unfortunate events.

Fire fighters often refer to the fire triangle. These are the three components that make a fire possible. They are Fuel, Oxygen and Heat. All three are needed. As Oxygen from the atmosphere is readily available, it is the other two components that we should focus on. Heat is initially provided by whoever lights the fire, the reasons for such action vary from the irresponsible through to the reckless and indeed criminal. While this point receives a lot of attention, I would argue that it is the other component that is fuel that is more critical. The supply of large quantities of fuel, mostly dead vegetation such as Purple Moor Grass or highly flammable plants such as Gorse is a reflection of past and present management. The accumulation of fuel did not occur overnight, it built up over time on sites where soil types and climate are suitable for these species and where management encourages their proliferation.

In Ireland, agriculture has shaped the landscape. Many farmers have commented to me about how trees and shrubs are a much more significant part of the landscape then they were in the past, some have shown me old photographs to back up their argument. While in the past, the use of available timber as a fuel, for fencing or for the manufacture of tools or furniture obviously impacted on the level of tree cover, it was the impact of grazing animals that has had the greatest effect. The scale of this impact is not just related to stock numbers but perhaps just as importantly to their management. In turn both numbers and management have been influenced by market demands and by Agricultural policy at national and EU level.

The impact on sheep numbers, first by the introduction of ewe premium payments and later by compulsory destocking has been well documented. But the breaking of the link between production and payments that was brought in with the introduction of the Single Payment Scheme has been just as significant. Political and economic considerations at a global level led to this policy shift. A decision to stop subsidising EU food production, in part motivated by a desire to open up markets in other parts of the world for European Services and Manufactured goods has had unintended and perhaps unforeseen consequences. The impact on land management, vegetation succession and the risk of fire is one of them.

If sheep were not needed to draw down payments then the only incentives remaining are tradition (which will only bring you so far) and market demands. With the margins on hill sheep very tight and often, if we were honest about it negative, it was inevitable that numbers would fall as farmers adapted to the new regime. This exacerbated the impact of the compulsory destocking which preceded it.

Sheep numbers are significant but their management is also important. The traditional hill sheep year seen animals on the hill for most of the year, brought down only for lambing, shearing, and tupping. Numbers on the hill typically peaked in late summer/ autumn and were at their lowest in the spring. In many areas this ages old routine is changing. In the Nephins and in parts of Connemara, out wintering on the hill was restricted as part of a Government mandated restoration program. In Co. Wicklow many of the remaining farmers are voluntarily bringing their sheep off the hill in the winter. This shift in the seasonal aspect of grazing has had an impact on vegetation, imperceptible at first but over a 5-10 year timeframe quite dramatic. Heather in particular has benefitted from this shift. Browsing of heather by sheep is at its greatest when other forage is scarce, i.e. in the winter. Removing sheep in the winter gives heather a real chance to prosper. This was the intention on the degraded commonages in the Nephins and the Maamturks/ Twelve Bens. In Wicklow, it was a consequence of changing farming practices, hard winters and a shrinking (and aging) farming population.

The dramatic reduction in cattle numbers on the hills has also had an impact on vegetation and on the accumulation of fuel and the consequent risk of fire. Many factors have contributed to this. As with sheep, the breaking of the link between payments and production has had an impact. Changing market demands have also been instrumental; in the past many farmers kept young cattle into their second or even third year but the market now demands younger beef (in part a legacy of BSE) and this means that calves are sold off at a young age for finishing on specialist farms. The better price offered by finishing farmers for continental calves has led to a move towards these breeds. As a result the herd in most commonage areas now consists almost entirely of suckler cows (normally continental breeds). On many farms these are rarely if ever put on the hill. The reasons for this are varied but include concerns about cows having enough milk to rear a good calf, safety concerns connected with running a bull and time constraints due to the demands of off farm employment. In many cases it also has to be said that concerns about the fencing of watercourses for REPS were the last straw for cattle on the hill. The age old traditional system of utilising summer grazing on the hill, while conserving hay on the enclosed lands has collapsed. Inevitably this change in management has led to changes in vegetation. The principal beneficiary being Purple Moor Grass, a species that is only palatable for 2-3 months in early- mid-summer (when traditional cattle grazing on the hill was at its peak). Without grazing the Moor grass proliferates, inappropriate burning only increasing its dominance. Ironically the dead leaf litter from this plant is highly flammable and it is one of the main fuels for the fires that we see every spring. This should serve as a reminder if anyone needed one of the link between grazing patterns and wildfires.

The traditional farming systems have been replaced. Continental cattle kept on the enclosed land all year round, fed in winter on imported feed, paid for by money from area based schemes are now the norm. In extreme cases, the only contribution that the commonage is making to the farm is by facilitating the drawing down of payments to finance farming on the enclosed land. On sheep farms, while commonage usage is better, stock numbers have fallen and in many cases the remaining animals are brought down for the winter, even housed in sheds part paid for by grants. In many cases these changes have been at the behest of the state itself. In others, economic and demographic factors have been involved. But in all cases the vegetation on the hill has in one way or another been affected.  

We can see that changes on the commonage are consequences of changes in management and in many cases that these changes in management occurred in response to changes in agricultural policy. The result is that Purple Moor Grass, Gorse and rank Heather take over the commonages and the risk of fires increases. What we are now witnessing is another policy shift and we can be certain that in time this too will impact on management and subsequently on the vegetation. In many cases this shift will accelerate the process of abandonment, while in others it may have the potential to check it. The impact will vary from site to site but what we can be sure of is that this policy shift will have consequences and that some of these may be negative.

The case of the risk of wildfires is a dramatic example of this.  The link between accumulation of fuel and land eligibility is stark. Almost by definition the accumulation of large amounts of highly flammable leaf litter, tall heather or gorse indicates low grazing pressure. Ideally this would be addressed by grazing management alone but in many cases, fear about continued eligibility can lead to a temptation for a quick fix. Staving off the threat of ineligibility can lead to desperate attempts to restore the land to a grazeable condition by setting fires. But controlled burning is demanding in terms of the skills and labour required and in many cases these resources are just not available. All too often the result is that fires get out of hand and what started out with a limited objective results in an inferno that engulfs a hillside. On the other hand we must acknowledge that an ineligibility finding on a commonage could destabilise the finances on multiple farms and lead to reduced grazing and increased fire risk.

A response born out of desperation is not what is needed now. What we require is a much more measured response and a recognition that while a certain amount of resources are needed that the most important requirements are time and an understanding of the processes at work from all involved. In this context the July 3rd deadline for the production of commonage management plans is a key concern. If these plans are rushed and inadequate the potential of GLAS as a policy instrument to deliver real improvements in upland management may be fatally undermined. Of even greater concern is the possibility that lands could be found to be ineligible before there is a vegetation response to planned management changes.

I am not pretending that we can or should even try to turn the clock back, but rather that if we are to succeed we must address the drivers that have brought farming in upland areas to such an unstable and vulnerable condition. We are not going to achieve this by relying on a carrot/ stick approach alone. Obviously we need a balance of incentives, like GLAS and sanctions such as land ineligibility but we also need to put in place a framework that addresses the real issues and makes progress possible.    

How can this be done? GLAS is potentially a good start, but it is only a start and will not solve the many challenges that we face by itself.  I am not despondent about this, I believe there is potential and there is reason to be hopeful for the future. My experience suggests that farmers and the Dept. of Agriculture can work together to achieve a solution on most but probably not on all commonages. Such a solution could include;

  1. An appreciation by all sides that these issues are multi-facetted and that to address them we need a thorough understanding of the contributory factors at national and farm and land parcel level.
  2. A recognition that vegetation changes occur over time and in response to changes in management. The present problems did not develop overnight and will not be resolved in a short time.
  3. Support for the GLAS scheme by allowing sufficient time for the development of commonage management plans. The present closing date of July 3rd is not deliverable.
  4. A fair and transparent standard for assessing land eligibility including an evidence based and objective decision making process for determining land eligibility.
  5. To accept that evidence of reasonable and sustained progress towards optimal vegetation cover should be adequate in the short to medium term to ensure land eligibility.
  6. The provision of a properly financed training system for farmers and specialist contractors on the science and practical delivery of controlled burning as a management technique. Resources must be found within the RDP to deliver this.
  7. The use of some of the funds available under the targeted outputs measure to operate a more finely focussed scheme on selected commonages. This could serve to develop a template for more widespread action in the next round of the CAP.
  8. The provision of specialist training to advisors using the funding available for Continuous Professional Development to build expertise on hill farming, upland vegetation and the impact of management.
  9. The provision of specialist support to advisors and hill farmers to deal with particularly complex issues. This could involve an extension of the role of the Commonage Implementation Committee.
  10. A holistic approach to upland management that includes other state actors such as the NPWS and Local Authorities. This is of particular importance where sectional concerns about issues like drainage, fencing or controlled burning threaten to undermine the progress that everyone professes to want.

Photograph is from the Defence Forces twitter account.

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