Farmland Biodiversity Guest Blog – Shane McAuliffe on how he is helping biodiversity on his farm

Shane McAuliffe is a well known pig farmer who also farms beef & tillage across Kerry and Offaly. He has a wide range of habitats on his farms including upland blanket bog and ancient woodland, and is taking actions to help biodiversity on his land. Shane provides a personal perspective of what biodiversity means to him and what he has done to help.

When it comes to farmland biodiversity, I am of the belief that small actions here and there on every farm can make a big difference. It is not always a matter of carrying out additional measures, or indeed spending money, because retaining what is already on your farm is just as important.

I am not sure what gave me the buzz, pardon the bee-related pun, to do more for biodiversity on farm. Over recent years my passion has just grown more and more. During the first lockdown in April & May 2020, a time where I would usually be travelling abroad, I enjoyed walks around the farms in the morning and again in the evening. There was something quite special in watching the blackthorn come into the flower, followed by the cuckoo flowers and the bluebells, and then the buzzing of bees from the mighty white hedgerows when the hawthorn burst into bloom.

In 2018 we applied to the Hen Harrier Project, a results-based payment scheme, and unfortunately, we were unsuccessful. Only 0.2% of our entire farmed land is in the Hen Harrier Special Protection Area so for this reason it was deemed too little. However, to my delight we were offered a contract the following year as did all other farmers who had applied. Our designated land consists of 3 fields on one farm, of wet grassland and blanket bog, and another field of wet grassland on another farm. We sowed two wild bird cover strips in two fields, and planted hawthorn hedging in another. I also planted flowering and fruiting native trees within this hedge such as rowan, spindle and cherry. I have always had an interest in farm ponds, so I decided to apply separately for a Local Action Grant to build a large farm wildlife pond with one side planted with native tree species. My thinking was that it would attract amphibians and smaller birds which would all be beneficial to the Hen Harrier. The application was successful and following on from this, the Hen Harrier Project has now included ponds as an additional action for all farmers in the project, to act dual purposely for wildlife and to always provide a source of water for fighting upland fires. Since last year we have dug out two smaller wildlife ponds on two other farms, and I am planning one for another farm in the coming months as well as a dual-purpose pond which was approved recently by the Hen Harrier Project.

Our farms are quite diverse, ranging from uplands with marginal land, intensive grasslands, spring and winter barley, commercial forestry & ancient woodland. I have carried out small measures that have a big impact on biodiversity. Native trees in the bare root season are relatively inexpensive, and field corners here and there can be planted up with a diverse range of tree species without having any impact on your grazing platform. Tree-lines in particular, along farm roadways really improve the overall look of the farm landscape and act as an important shelter for grazing livestock in weather extremes. There really is a great feeling when you see bees pollinating flowers and birds eating berries on trees you planted yourself. It’s very rewarding knowing it was a very simple measure for yourself, but it’s having a positive effect on the wildlife with which you share your farm.

With my experience of result-based schemes like the Hen Harrier Project, I do believe that these are the way forward for any agri-environmental schemes. The current system does not maximise the value of biodiversity. I have 2 special farm habitats which I always rank among my favourites.

  • There is a small marsh, which is listed on old farm maps from the late 1800s. These are now quite rare as they would have been drained in the last century for agricultural purposes. Ours has remained and is teeming with wildlife, from the herons who feed among the wide tufts of Yellow Iris, to the mallards which swim through the clumps of Greater Tussock-sedge. Willow and alder have self-seeded and the dawn chorus is a delight on a summers morning. It is situated at the bottom of a hill, so any run-off from the fields flow directly into it and not into watercourses. This assists with flood mitigation.
  • We also have a unique and diverse habitat which looks like an area of native woodland. However as you walk through the sea of bluebells and luscious ferns beneath the tree canopy there is a drop of about 40-50 feet. Rising up out of the ground beneath giant limestone rocks is a small stream which is the source of the River Maine. It flows along the ground before disappearing back into a limestone cave. It emerges about a kilometre away where it flows through Castleisland and enters the Atlantic Ocean 42km further south at Castlemaine Harbour. In the 1859 Geological Survey of Ireland it’s described as a ‘’picturesque spot’’ in a ‘’deep, conical, oval shaped hole in the ground’’. There is also a marsh like pool which is recent years has been filling with deadwood and other material. Beech, sycamore, ash, holly and hawthorn are in abundance. Both badgers and foxes are very active here.

According to our Basic Payment Scheme maps, these two habitats are excluded. Despite the benefits they bring to the environment, between enhancing biodiversity and carbon sequestration, we are not incentivised to keep them. If we were to drain the marsh and convert it into intensive grassland, we would get a yearly payment for doing so. The field corners I have planted with native trees will also get penalised under the current system. Even for new native woodland establishment, it is very hard to recommend this to other farmers because of the delays that are currently crippling forestry licencing. Last week I got a tree-felling licencing to thin one of our forests, two years after first applying, and I am still waiting for the approval for a forest road.

This May I chose to write a post every day on Twitter and Instagram about important species and habitats on our farms. It has varied from gorse to bats, from riparian margins to brambles, from patches of nettles to bee nesting banks. My aim was to show that even small measures on farms can have a positive impact. It has been overwhelming to hear from so many farmers looking for advice on how to construct ponds or sow wildflower strips, and even better to see so many farmers joining in and sharing their #FarmlandBiodiversity stories!

 

Over the course of the month of May, Shane shared on social media wonderful examples of what he has done on his farm to help biodiversity. Here are just a sample of photographs showing what he has done. You can catch up with Shane on twitter @ShaneMcAuliffe1

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