Here are our Farming For Nature Ambassadors from 2018. These 6 farmers and their families were shortlisted by the judges and were put out to the public to vote for an overall winner.
Donal, along with his wife Ita and two children, farms a 70-cow dairy herd on ‘Blossom Farm’ near Castlelyons, in the Bride valley, Co. Cork. While Donal runs what would at first be considered a ‘typical’ intensive farm, he has a keen interest in farming in a more nature-friendly way. As he puts it ‘we try to push the boat out all the time trying to make farming around here more sustainable’. He dedicates a proportion of his farm to biodiversity including ponds, pollinator strips and wild bird cover for overwintering birds. He keeps bees and farms with these in mind minimising herbicide use. He doesn’t cut hedges and has energy saving devices on his milking machines. Donal believes farmers can make a huge difference in improving biodiversity, lowering their carbon footprint and improving the quality of our water. Such is his conviction and vision, that he is one of the main drivers of an innovative new pilot project called The BRIDE (Biodiversity Regeneration In a Dairying Environment) Project which rewards farmers for delivering measurable improvements in biodiversity over a 5 year period. Donal is a very eloquent advocate for – and exponent of – farming for nature.
Kim and his wife Mireille manage a 214-acre mixed livestock stock farm in Calverstown, Kilcullen, Co. Kildare. They keep a herd of 75 pedigree suckler cows and their followers, a flock of c.80 sheep, as well as a few pigs in the summertime. The farm boasts a wide range of habitats – wetlands, woodlands, wet and dry grasslands, old buildings and walls – which, for the McCalls, makes a walk around the farm ‘a very pleasurable experience, even when things might not be going too well otherwise’. Kim acknowledges that farming sustainably isn’t easy, particularly trying to remain profitable, but feels that if you manage the land within its capacity, it’s very doable – ‘farming for nature, not against it’ as he says. No artificial fertilizers are purchased, no pesticides are used and hedgerows and grasslands are rarely topped – ‘tidiness is a state of mind’ according to Kim – with the preferred approach being a careful and balanced management which has resulted in an ideal situation for nature – birds, butterflies, bees – to thrive. The McCalls work in this regard has been recognised by several National awards and several appearances on TV. The McCalls work closely with the National Biodiversity Data Centre, providing valuable data. Kim is concerned about changes in the rural landscape, in particular the loss of wetlands to forestry, as we try to increase carbon sequestration, a potentially worrying trade-off in his opinion. He offers the following advice on farming for nature: ‘Stand back and look – observation is the basis for intelligence’.
Martin lives in Keel, Co Mayo with his wife Angela. They have 8 daughters and two sons and have farmed on Achill Island for seven generations. Martin farms a herd of 150 Black-faced Mountain Sheep on his shareholding of an extensive (20,000 acre) commonage, as well as on an area of machair (a rare seaside habitat). These ‘Mayo blackhead ewes’ have been kept on this farm for many generations and are perfectly adapted to grazing the mosaic of protected habitats – from mountain to seashore – where they play a key role in maintaining local biodiversity. Martin is also a master butcher and he and his family have, since 1962, run the only abattoir on Achill island. The Calveys sell their trade-marked ‘Achill Mountain Lamb’ from their local shop as a high-quality food product, one which has won numerous awards and is the choice of many top-chefs through the west of Ireland, including Ashford Castle. Martin is a champion of good environmental management – a member of the local ‘custodians of the commonage’ group who helps ensure the land is properly cared for, as well as a great advocate for the link between habitat management, local food production and the added ecosystem and financial value that can result. As his daughter Martina says ‘We respect nature, we work with it and it rewards us very well’. They were the overall winners of the Farming for Nature Award 2018 through public vote.
Padraig and his wife Bernadette, along with their four children, have a cattle and sheep enterprise on their holding in Mount Plunkett, near Lough Ree, Co. Roscommon. Padraic manages a 54-acre section of an old estate – which he and his family run as a Nature Reserve – composed of diverse range of tillage, grassland, woodland and wetland. He has restored woodland, planted new hedgerows, dug ponds, installed bat and bird boxes and restored wetland areas for breeding waders of conservation importance by clearing encroaching scrub. He has established plots for wild birds and used seed mixes that are optimum for biodiversity. Padraig is very knowledgeable and keen to advocate for getting the best for biodiversity from his landscape. A modest man, he claims “We don’t do anything special, just care for what’s there. Farming is about being sensitive and compassionate to the environment that we are working in’. Padraig is very passionate about sharing his story with others: he has hosted numerous guided walks, courses and other events and has featured on RTE’s Eco Eye and Ear to the Ground.
Sean manages a 60-acre certified organic Cloncannon farm on the western slopes of the Devil’s bit Mountains, near Moneygall in North Tipperary. Sean has been farming since he took over from his father 15 years ago and now keeps a 20 cow suckler herd, as well as pigs, poultry and goats. A University graduate with a Master’s degree in Biodiversity and Conservation, Sean is a heritage enthusiast, continuously planting native trees, putting in ponds for wildlife and pollinator strips for his beehives and birdlife. He does this to encourage biodiversity but also for his personal fulfilment and satisfaction ‘for when he has aged 30 or 40 years from now’. He says that this is part of ‘my 5 year plan, my 50 year plan, my 500 year plan’ and feels that farmers should think long-term like the native Americans, ‘seven generations from now’ Sean feels he is on a journey of learning and he is particularly passionate about the importance of soil and making sure it is properly nurtured to ensure good crop health – ‘the microbes and the fungi – so minute yet so powerful, they drive the whole system’. Sean runs numerous education programmes for primary and secondary schools, hosts events for Biodiversity and Heritage Week and opens the farm as an eco-tourist visitor site.
Pat is a sixth-generation hill sheep farmer in Glenmalure valley, County Wicklow. He farms with his two sons, together keeping 1,100 ewes on 1,250 acres of commonage. The farm is 90% mountain grazing, mostly dry heath and upland grassland which is all designated SAC and NHA. The area is rich in wildlife, including grouse. Pat takes his role as the current “keeper” of the family’s long tradition of work on the uplands seriously and is anxious to hand-over the Wicklow hills in the best possible condition to the next generation of upland farmers. He feels that over the last 40 years there has been a slow but progressive decline in hill sheep farming, with the quality of the grazing declining along with the associated biodiversity, as bracken and Molinia start to take over. Pat was determined to work out a solution to this issue and was instrumental in establishing the new Sustainable Upland Agri-Environmental Scheme (SUAS) so that farmers can work together to the better of the uplands. The project will explore key management issues including vegetation management through targeted grazing, feeding and burning. Pat feels that it is important to keep these places ‘as living landscapes, not just wilderness’. Though he recognises the challenges, Pat loves farming and ‘doesn’t know a better way of life’. He was one of the first Wicklow farmers to establish an “Agreed Access Route” on his lands. He is very involved in the local community, also in the Wicklow Uplands Council and at a National level on the IFA’s Hill committee.