‘Farmers must be rewarded for delivering on biodiversity’ – top dairy farmer

While sustainability and biodiversity will be central to new CAP reforms, a Cork farmer would rather see the impetus coming from the food and drinks industry.

Donal Sheehan, a 70-cow dairy farmer in Castlelyons, near Fermoy, who supplies Glanbia on a 100% spring calving herd, is being honoured by Cork Environmental Forum for his work in sustainable agriculture.

With a sustainable category accolade being introduced in this year’s awards, Cork Environmental Forum, thought it would be appropriate to highlight the work of two farmers who are pioneers of a sustainable approach to farming.

Sheehan is being recognised for his work in ensuring and improving habitats for wildlife; and increasing biodiversity on his farm.

Alan Kingston, another Cork farmer, is also being commended for embracing initiatives on his agroforestry farm.

The Cork Environmental Forum interacted with both farmers over the past year; visited their farms; and participated in a farm walk. A space week event also took place on Sheehan’s farm. Members visited Kingston’s farm as part of Tree Week.

Sheehan told AgriLand that he would like to see the food and drink industry reward farmers for producing what is increasingly being demanded by European consumers – ethically and sustainably produced products.

Issues with existing schemes

He said that as an intensive farmer, existing environmental schemes didn’t suit him.

“Consumers need to realise that farmers are paid to produce as much food as possible. The more we produce; the more we get paid – with no signal from the marketplace to improve water quality, biodiversity or carbon footprint.

Incentives need to be put in place to reward farmers who deliver eco-system services and I would like to see the initiative coming directly from the marketplace.”

Driven by the encouragement of his parents and the influence of teachers over the years, Sheehan has implemented a number of sustainable measures on the farm which he took over from his father in 1994.

He also followed in his father’s footsteps as a beekeeper.

Being a beekeeper gives a different perspective on farming. Wild flowers are competition for grass and crops; but, if you don’t have wild flowers, you won’t have honey. So there has to be a balance and an acceptance that we need to leave some room for nature. It’s about getting the balance right between sustainability, biodiversity and food production.

Because of the problem of secondary poisoning of barn owls and other wildlife species with toxic rodenticides; Sheehan now uses rodenticide alternatives such as cage traps in his rodent control programme.

 

environmental

Sprays are kept to a minimum

“Chemical usage is something we all need to be cautious about. Residues ending up in the food chain is a complete no-no,” he said.

He harvests all rainwater from the milking parlour. The water that cools the milk through the plate cooler is then used to wash the milking machine. It is then drained into a tank to wash down the yard; before eventually going into the slurry tank and spread on the land as a replacement for chemical fertiliser.

Hedges are now only side-trimmed by Sheehan, rather than their practice in the past of having all hedges neatly cut on an annual basis.

A 2m wildlife margin is maintained around all hedgerows, which he said, is hugely important for small mammals and pollinators.

“Neat hedges are of little value to wildlife and reduce winter food for birds, and pollen and nectar for bees. We need to allow hedges to grow and mature,” he said.

We try to have a 10% biodiversity guideline; with 10% of land devoted to catering for eco-systems. This involves repairing and counteracting damage, improving carbon footprint, and enhancing water quality, habitats, wildlife and pollinators.

“Small changes can make big differences. It’s the mindset that is most difficult to change,” he said.

‘Green-prescription’

“At a time when ‘eco-therapy’ or a ‘green-prescription’ is advocated by medical professionals; farmers are in a unique position to deliver a more pleasant and healthy environment for everyone – just what the doctor ordered,” he said.

The Cork Environmental Forum praised Sheehan’s strong awareness and concern for the destruction of wildlife habitats to which intensive agriculture is considered a major contributor.

The forum praised his efforts to maintain and enhance habitats for wildlife and biodiversity.

“He has given over land to provide wild bird cover; allowed margins that support pollinators and other biodiversity; planted trees to attract certain species of butterflies, and installed bat and bird boxes on his farm,” a spokesperson for the forum said.

The forum praised his support of citizen science work with the National Biodiversity Data Centre, and his active involvement with Birdwatch Ireland to conserve and protect birds.

Donal and Alan exemplify an open and proactive approach as landowners to farming the land in a manner that aims to respect, preserve, and enhance the environment.

“We hope that by highlighting these good practice examples, it will encourage others who may be doing likewise, to submit nominations to our award for sustainable agriculture in 2018,” the forum spokesperson said.