The farm organisation representing hill farmers has criticised demands from the Irish Wildlife Trust (IWT) to remove sheep from hills.

The Irish Natura and Hill Farmers’ Association (INHFA) said that the “destocking of our hills over 20 years ago is still a very raw issue with many farmers and any proposal to revisit this will not be entertained”.

Colm O’Donnell, the association’s president, argued that “the failed policy of destocking has not only failed our farmers but also failed in its intention to deliver better environmental outcomes on our hills”.

On the Burren we also saw how the removal of stock had a negative environmental impact but thankfully the mistake here was acknowledged in time and stocks were reintroduced.

The IWT said last week that it was calling for sheep to be taken off hills to “allow restoration of upland and peatland eco-systems”.

O’Donnell claimed: “In their rush to blame farmers, it is unfortunate that those members of the IWT didn’t take the time to look beyond their own prejudice to see the bigger picture and the important role farming livestock has in the delivery of positive environmental outcomes.”

He argued that hills were “managed landscapes”, and that the issue was not farmers, but rather the restrictions that those farmers work under.

The INHFA president went on to note that these restrictions were introduced under Natura 2000 during the 1990s, which designated special areas of conservation (SACs) and special protected areas (SPAs) “because [those areas] had good environmental standing which was delivered by farmers”.

However, over the last 20 years, many of these sites have, according to the National Parks and Wildlife Service [NPWS], ‘gone backwards’ and farmers and their stock are blamed for this by the IWT and ‘keyboard warriors’.

“There is understandable anger by many farmers at the way they have been treated over the last 20 years. Despite delivering habitats of exceptional value worth protecting, they are rewarded with restrictions that have sterilised their land and undermined these habitats,” O’Donnell claimed.

He concluded by claiming that hill farmers are the “real environmentalists”, and saying: “We are the professionals, so maybe it is time for the amateurs to leave the field.”