SUAS: ‘Local solutions to local problems’

The Irish Farmers’ Association (IFA) held its National Hill Sheep Forum in Co. Wicklow on Thursday, September 5.

The event began at 2:00pm at the Hollywood Community Centre, Co. Wicklow. The first talk of the day was presented by Declan Byrne – project manager – of the Sustainable Uplands Agri-environment Scheme (SUAS).

The project – which is working with upland farmers in the Wicklow and Dublin uplands – aims to support upland farmers while protecting this significant heritage by remunerating them for activities which improve and protect their farmed habitats.

Declan spoke about the commonage project, which is in its second year. He outlined what the farmers in the Wicklow mountains are doing to help improve the environment and management of the Wicklow hills.

There are a lot of good things happening in the hills, such as actively growing blanket bog and wild cranberries.

There are over 200ha of heather on the mountains, which is of poor-quality. This is a major problem farmers face in this region, with regards to improving the productivity of their sheep enterprises.

The three major problems facing farmers are:

  • Heather/bracken growth;
  • Erosion of peat; and
  • Waterflow down the mountains.

Speaking at the event, Declan said: “The main contributor damaging this environment is by deer not sheep.

“Bad burning has been one of the biggest issues facing this scheme. Small amounts of burning and getting sheep on the hills when they’re needed is critical.”

Solutions:

Declan outlined some of the ways that hill farmers can counteract these problems. One action currently being carried out is controlled burning.

“Farmers in this region have carried out burning practices. Typically, only small areas of land are burned at one time, usually 3-4ha. The regrowth of grass due to the sheep grazing has been a success.”

Furthermore, spraying has been carried out in three areas of the hills. One of the sites is inaccessible for tractors so, instead, it will be sprayed off by hand; two sites have been sprayed using a tractor and sprayer.

It costs €250 to buy the spray; €150/ha to spray the heather using a tractor; and €600/ha to spray the vegetation by hand.

“An interesting solution and one that is currently being carried out is shepherding. Farmers were struggling to find the time to go out on the hills and gather their flock of sheep.

“Shepherding is when someone walks the hills on behalf of everyone else in the commonage. The payment received is €120 based on six hours’ work, paid out twice a week over six months of the year.

“There is an app on the phone that shows you how far they went, how long they were on the hill and what areas they walked through,” Declan added.

The budget for the scheme is €1.95 million, which is being rolled out over a five-year period.

“Moreover, planting trees is another action which is to be carried out over the course of the scheme. Planting native species along the watercourses will help to reduce flooding and prevent bare peat being washed down the mountain.

“There is less and less sheep on the hill year after year. We want farmers to put sheep back on the hill and help maintain these natural environments,” Declan concluded.

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