14 farmers who are members of the Comeragh Hill Sheep Discussion Group have been awarded €118,720 for a one-year project.

The farmers’ sheep graze over 4,000ha of the Comeragh Mountains in Co. Waterford across six commonages and four upland farms.

The award was made by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (DAFM) using the European Innovation Partnership (EIP) model.

Biodiversity focus for Comeragh group

The award focus was on promoting biodiversity through collaboration among farming groups, community and local action groups who engage with the broader population.

Liam Beresford, an upland sheep farmer on the Comeragh mountains, who chairs the project team, said: “Our project is based on learning how to manage the uplands we graze to improve and maintain the quality of the habitats.”  

Currently, there are no training courses available for upland farmers to help them manage some of the important Irish habitats protected by European legislation.

Beresford is hoping that their approach to the training will provide a basis for use by other Irish upland farmers.

The discussion group farmers on their first commonage walkover near Mahon Falls on the Comeragh Mountains

Ecology of uplands

The farmers walked their upland areas with an ecologist in August and September of this year.

They gained an understanding of what a habitat is and the habitat types on their uplands for the first time.

Group member and farmer, Paul Fraher, said of the walks: “The sessions with the ecologist were the first time in my life of walking this upland, that I was looking down at what I am walking on.” 

The ecologist and farmers also collected plants for chemical analysis by Trinity College Dublin (TCD) Centre for Natural Products Research – NatPro.

There is anecdotal and documented evidence that several Comeragh Mountain plants have various preventative and therapeutic uses in traditional medicines.  

Comeragh Mountains biodiversity
Norma and Claire Beresford collecting plant samples on Coumarglin for analysis by Natpro

Tom Power, farmer and the project’s financial controller, said: “The next steps are to combine the ecologists’ recommended actions with improving, or maintaining the habitats with our plans for sheep production.

“The process will go on over the coming months on the six commonages and the four upland farms,” he added.

Paddy Cooney, chair of the Teagasc Comeragh Hill Sheep Discussion Group, said: “We want to improve the links between ourselves and Comeragh upland community, to explore opportunities for an integrated locally-led strategy.”

Community talks and primary schools

The project’s engagement activities with the broader Comeragh Mountains communities will begin in early October. It will involve a series of talks by experts and locals on the mountain’s cultural heritage.

In the New Year, there will also be engagement with the six local primary schools to enhance their ongoing initiatives to create a ‘sense of place’ among their students.

Both activities will help build a better sense of place within the Comeragh upland community. 

Teagasc advisor Catriona Foley, who facilitates the discussion group, said: “The value of the natural habitats and cultural heritage is a local resource and should be shared by the community.”

Padraig Dempsey, the project group’s PR manager, added: “The project will explore the options for a locally-led initiative to secure a sustainable future for the Comeraghs.

“The strategy will contribute to the future social, economic and well-being of the Comeragh upland communities.”