Conacre ‘not to blame’ for all of NI’s land fertility issues

Farmers who own ground need to take more responsibility for maintaining land fertility, a senior agri-business manager has warned.

Speaking at an agri-economics briefing for agricultural journalists, Ulster Bank’s senior agriculture manager, Cormac McKervey, said conacre could not be blamed for Northern Ireland’s land fertility problems, given that most of the ground in poor condition is not even managed through the system.

It comes as the system of letting ground comes under increased scrutiny, with critics saying it does not give farmers the security of knowing investments in the land will be returned.

30% of land is managed in conacre

McKervey referenced John Gilliland’s Land Sustainability report, which stated that just 18% of agricultural land in the region was at its optimum fertility.

Critics of conacre have firmly laid the blame there; however, McKervey highlighted that just 30% of land in Northern Ireland is managed this way.

The difference means a significant proportion of under-performing land is either in ownership or long-term lease.

“Truthfully, I can understand why [conacre] land hasn’t been invested in,” he said.

“Because at best a farmer only has it for 10 months – so why make the investment of lime, reseeding, fencing, and drainage?

But what does that say about the land which is owned? It’s quite frightening how little investment goes into it.

“It’s by far our most important resource, and quite incredible to think that’s the case – so there’s an awful lot of work to be done,” McKervey said.

Soil analysis

Just 2% of soil is sampled each year – a figure McKervey said was shockingly low.

“Soil sampling is £10 an acre so investment is very lopsided,” he said.

He added that there had been little interest in a ‘pasture loan’ run by the bank several years ago.

The idea was that the loan would allow farmers to make investments on their land, making repayments over the next four or five years, while the benefits would pay dividends for the next 15-20 years.