Posted on behalf of Neal Warnock, Conservation Advisor in Northern Ireland
In 2011, around 12,000 farmers across Northern Ireland had land entered into some form of agri-environment scheme. Over half of farmers working with RSPB NI in the Glenwherry area of the Antrim Hills had fields entered into options specifically aimed at supporting curlews, lapwings and snipe. Shockingly, this group of ground nesting waders have declined by 83 per cent across Northern Ireland since 1987.
In 2017 it’s thought that the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) could announce the end of Area of Natural Constraint (ANC) payments to farmers in severely disadvantaged areas. This has the potential to remove £20 million from the incomes of farms – farms which the Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU) describes as vital for the red meat industry in Northern Ireland. These are also high nature-value farms rich in wildlife, supporting many of our most threatened species including breeding waders.
Curlew Image: Neal Warnock
Today fewer than 1,000 farmers remain in the Northern Ireland Countryside Management Scheme and fewer than 10 of those live in Glenwherry. This situation is clearly not sustainable for farmers or the wildlife their land supports. The UK’s decision to leave the European Union may in time create opportunities for farmers and wildlife, but has caused a great deal of uncertainty and questions since being announced; when would Northern Ireland’s new Environmental Farming Scheme (EFS) open for business? Who would pay for it? Would payments be secured for the five year duration of agreements?
Answers to these questions were as hard to come by as an agri-environment farmer in the Antrim Hills. The European Commissioner announced that all scheme agreements signed before Article 50 was triggered would be honoured by Europe, so why the hold up in opening the EFS? It was time to start putting some pressure on our government departments and politicians. It was time for Northern Ireland’s farmers to step forward.
A letter to the DAERA minister Michelle McIlveen MLA was signed by many farmers who supported our campaign seeking answers to the above questions. Many of these farmers also contacted the minister directly, phoned their local political reps, raised the issue at local meetings and wrote articles for the farming press. Their efforts were soon rewarded.
The EFS is due to open in February 2017 and the RSPB is confident these agreements will be honoured for their duration. Farmers in Glenwherry have demonstrated over many years that such schemes can deliver for wildlife and are determined not to let their hard work go to waste. Over the past few years, more and more farmers have fallen out of schemes, creating significant voids in farm incomes. Yet, during this time they have continued to manage their land sensitively and breeding wader numbers have increased. Surveys conducted by RSPB NI this year recorded 39 pairs of lapwings, 44 pairs of curlews and 164 pairs of snipe – overall numbers not seen since the 1980s.
Image: Neal Warnock
The hills of Glenwherry may be considered severely disadvantaged in terms of production, but each spring they come alive. For breeding waders and other threatened wildlife, these uplands are amongst the most productive in the country.