Farmland Biodiversity Guest Blog – High Nature Value farmland by Dr. James Moran

High Nature Value farmland areas jewels in the crown of Ireland’s biodiversity! 

In the next of our guest blogs for the Festival of Farmland Biodiversity Dr. James Moran Department of Natural Sciences, Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology talks about High Nature Value farmland and asks, ‘Do we value them?’

High Nature Value (HNV) farmland are agricultural areas dominated by semi-natural vegetation which support high biodiversity including habitats and species of national and international conservation concern. The HNV farmland concept has been around for almost 30 years and  came into existence in response to the prevailing narrative in the early 1990s that something needed to be done to mitigate the effects of increasing agricultural intensification on the environment. This was definitely true but there was a worry that while concentrating on the negative effects on the environment we would forget about and fail to reward the positive influence of farming on the environment.

Farming practices in HNV areas have been locally adapted by generations of farmers to the environment in which they worked. In HNV areas across Europe (e.g. the Dehesas and Montados silvo-pastoral systems of Southern Europe; the steppe grasslands of Eastern Europe; Sami reindeer herders of northern European tundra;  the bocage landscape of extensive pasture and dense network of field boundaries in western Europe; further examples on there was and still is a real risk that biodiversity that was intimately linked with extensive farming practices would continue to decline. This is even more true 30 years later.

Agriculture in Ireland takes place across diverse landscapes from mountains to the sea, on land of varying capacities to produce food and fibre, but also varying abilities to produce a whole host of environmental services such as carbon storage, flood alleviation, water filtration and space for nature. Some land on deep fertile soils with favourable climatic condition in the south-east is naturally advantaged to produce high quantities and quality of food. It also has a nature value and when well maintained has a network of high nature value features such as hedgerow/field margins, groves of trees, semi-natural riparian vegetation along rivers and is often interspersed with wetlands. In the west and north-west plus upland areas across the country where climatic and soil conditions are not as favourabe to high quantities of food production we can still have high quality food production. These HNV landscapes are dominated by semi-natural vegetation (semi-natural grasslands, heathlands, peatlands, wetlands, scrub and pockets of woodlands) interspersed with agriculturally improved grasslands. In the modern multifunctional view of agriculture HNV areas are of central importance to the production of a range of services including carbon sequestration, flood alleviation, safeguarding water quality, biodiversity, high landscape quality and quality food production.

Across all this land biodiversity underpins the production of our food, fibre and environmental service provision. The evidence base for this is overwhelming (Ecological Evidence | Cap4nature). Everything from the recycling of nutrients which maintains the fertility of our soils to the  sequestration and storage of carbon which regulates our climate, depends on how biodiversity (the variety of life on earth) interacts with our air, water and land.

We live on an island with such potential but why do we have our national monitoring programmes continually showing declines in biodiversity and water quality while farmers struggle to make ends meet. To put it mildly we have an agriculture and land use policy poorly adapted to the national and global challenges we face as a society, with built in path dependency and blighted by inertia, inaction and polarization of views. A major problem is that our economic system only rewards the food and fibre production potential of the land. Despite our agricultural systems being publicly subsidized, these subsidies are poorly designed to reward the environmental services produced on farmland. No wonder then in a situation where economic viability is a continued challenge, that farmers struggle to produce the environmental services that society so badly needs. Our agricultural knowledge generation and dissemination has paid only limited attention to the development of a more integrated system with the vast majority of research and development focused on increasing food production and efficiencies. Of course, improved food production and efficiency is needed, but we need to step up our efforts to improve environmental performance in the midst of a declared biodiversity and climate emergency.  We have to create a system where the pathway out of the red for farmers is green.

We need to find ways to capitalise on the natural advantages of HNV farmland to produce the services that society needs. There are opportunities and innovative solutions such as result-based agri-environment payments for environmental services which have been developed across the country at local level by farmers, advisors, researchers and wider society coming together. We see example of success stories  from the Burren Programme, Hen Harrier and Pearl Mussel European Innovation Partnership projects together with a multitude of other national and international examples. This can improve socio-economic viability while enhancing the environmental service provision of HNV farmland.

Together with colleagues we have recently published a synthesis of Ireland’s current management of HNV farmland and  where we go from here (see  Management of HNV Farmland in the Republic of Ireland). In short, this highlights that the conservation of HNV farmland will be crucial for the conservation of European and Irish biodiversity. We need to have greater policy and market coherence involving a combination of public payments for public goods (e.g. non-market environment services such as enhanced biodiversity, climate mitigation and adaptation) together with market rewards for environment protection and enhancement. We have had successful pilots of results based agri-environment payments which pay farmers based on a simplified 10 point scoring system of the environmental quality of their land.  The Department of Agriculture has recently launched a larger national scale version of this with 2000 places. There has been over 10,000 farmer applicants for these   2000 places illustrating to me that the time is now to fully role out the approach across the country. Results based payments are not a panacea to achieving viable HNV farmlands, future agriculture policy will also need to empower HNV farmers and local communities through capacity building and knowledge sharing. We need to promote societal demand and recognition of the value of these farmland areas and the services they provide. We have increased environmental ambition in our European Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) but ambition without concrete action and change is just wishful thinking.