Why are Hen Harriers one of the rarest and most endangered species in Ireland?
Their habitats have been lost and damaged across large areas. Their prey base has been decimated (for the loss of every single Hen Harrier, there will have been thousands of other birds that depend on the same habitat lost). Even within the special protection areas, more than half of what would have been their best habitat (moorland and grassland) have been subsumed by non-native commercial plantations. The quality of habitat that remains in the open areas if more often than not, of a poor quality. This industrial scale loss of natural and semi habitat has seen the loss of many of Ireland’s most loved birds including Curlew, Red Grouse, Skylark, Cuckoo and of course the indicator of the health of the ecosystem – the Hen Harrier.
Why has the habitat been lost?
The loss of habitat has followed a loss of the low intensity type of farming that existed for hundreds of years. This type of farming is difficult to maintain as economically viable. For the past 4 decades, the government and private foresters have pushed forestry grants to small farmers - cash to plant their land with non-native conifer trees. These industrial type plantations are the absolute opposite of what many native Irish wildlife species require and they are soon lost from the area. Of course the grant for planting the land is only for a limited period (15 years), but the land is forever lost to farming and indeed forever lost to memory. What often happens is that in an ageing population, when the farmer passes on, the land is inherited by someone who is not living on the land or who has a desire to continue farming on what is difficult land, with relatively low financial return. The past 4 decades have seen massive rural decline in these areas. Commercial forestry has clearly not been the answer to stemming the loss of people from marginal upland areas. Moreover, it has paralleled the loss of people and farming.
For those that do stay to farm the land, they try to compete in the same market as the guys that are able to produce hundreds of large animals on more agriculturally productive land. Those guys have far lower input costs, while the farmers on the more marginal uplands have higher input costs, struggling with heavier soils, higher rainfall, rushes, scrub, etc. In some ways, it is like a two-tier league of agricultural production, where there are the elite clubs who will always top the table given the resources available to them, and those that are struggling to stay up. In trying to compete with “the big boys”, habitats are lost and damaged on marginal upland farms – species rich fields are reseeded, scrub is cleared out, stocking rates are increased – all with resultant loss of biodiversity. However, if one takes a step back – is it actually sustainable for those farmers struggling to stay up? In what are volatile markets, where the price of milk or beef can drop below levels that are economically safe even for “the big boys” in Ireland, the amount of time and energy and money that farmers in the uplands are investing into their farms would not be advised by pure economists. Farmers are not economists. Farmers want to farm. They want to farm because of the love of being out there, on their land. They love being out in the open, walking and working in their fields, seeing the fruits of their labour, looking after their stock, etc. They love the tradition. They would love to pass the farm from one generation to the next. If they were in it for the quick buck – they would have sold out to the forestry grants a long time ago. However, it would be foolish to suggest that these farmers are blinded by their love of farming and that they don’t see the financial side of what is happening. They see it more than anyone as they are living it. Just about all these farmers work full time jobs elsewhere so that they can make ends meet.
So, what’s the solution?
Under the Rural Development Plan, there are supports available to farmers to maintain viability, including incentives to support ecosystems, maintain habitats and protect wildlife. Farmers in Hen Harrier areas are ranked as a priority group for entry to GLAS. In addition, a new Locally Led Agri-Environment Scheme (LLAES) is expected to come into place for farmers in Hen Harrier areas. This scheme is intended to deliver results above and beyond what GLAS will achieve and to be honest for the Hen Harrier it is very much needed as GLAS does not appear to have the ability to turn things around for a species that is in drastic decline. For commentators that wrongly have notions that the locally led scheme is some form of compensation for designation, they should realise that this commentary is misleading and unhelpful. If the schemes are seen as anything other than money to farmers to support habitats and species, the chance of failure is high. If the habitats and birds are lost – what are the chances of getting this money in future, where there are no habitats and birds? The monies are targeted towards where the habitats and species exist. While the farmers are not economists, they understand exactly how important agri-environment scheme money is to their farm income and an environment of appreciation should be fostered to ensure this money delivers on what it is paid for, and so can continue to come in.
A future with balanced choices
In effect, this is the start of a move towards incentivising farmers in marginal areas to operate in a third market – not forestry (whereby farming ceases on that land), not trying to keep up with the big boys (which will ultimately be a losing game), but a High Nature Value market whereby the farmers are incentivised to continue or reinstate the practices that made or makes their area so important for biodiversity and a range of public goods from carbon to water to scenery. Farmers want to farm and agri-environmental farming may be the best fit and most sustainable option for many farmers in the long run. There is a very long way to go, to make sure the markets are balanced, to make sure that the farmers are being offered three evenly weighted options and not being forced down a particular route that would otherwise not be their preferred choice.