Noel Kiernan farms 250 acres of mixed land – there is forestry, marsh, bogland, pasture and hay meadows. He is passionate about conservation in all forms – from native flora and fauna, to native Irish livestock breeds. He farms and breeds from Roscommon sheep and Bo Riacht cattle – playing a crucial role in ensuring the vitality of these old Irish breeds. He also keeps Connemara ponies. The animals are a crucial element of Noels farming system as they graze the pasture and produce manure which fertilizes the soil - “Grazing is very important for certain rare species, such as curlew, corncrake, lapwing, skylark and other ground nesting birds, as well as flora like orchids. All those species have followed us as farmers through the ages and they have benefited from our farming activity. Now, the lack of that type of traditional farming activity means that many of those species will be in trouble because they won’t have suitable habitats.”
Noel is a forester as well as a farmer and he is passionate about combining forestry and farming, as he believes these practices can be mutually beneficial when managed sustainably. There is 100 acres of native broadleaf forestry on the land, this maintains native species of flora and fauna and encourage as much wildlife to the farm as possible. Noel runs a continuous forest cover system, meaning anywhere a tree is cut then another one is planted in its place.
The farm, also referred to as “Noel’s Ark”, holds an impressive array of habitats and wildlife, including but not limited to amphibians, lizards, pine martens, kingfishers, woodcocks, blackcaps, skylarks, marsh fritillary butterflies and various bee species. For years, Noel has dedicated his time and his land to farming in ways that protect and enhance biodiversity – “my farm is open to whatever birds want to come in.”
Noel Kiernan is the most inspiring farmer and conservationist I have ever met. I heard he was planting native trees, including rare native species, so I contacted him, eager to find out what he was up to.
He was happy to oblige, and, when he showed me around his lands, now mostly nature reserve, I was floored by the depth of his commitment to conservation.
Noel, originally from Westmeath, graduated from Avondale forestry school and worked for the Forest Service. He then became an independent forester/consultant, specialising in broadleaves, and managed an innovative programme for Crann in Leitrim.
Noel decided that his life’s purpose was conservation – of native plants and animals and livestock breeds. He built up a 200-acre holding in Longford, comprising good pasture as well as callows and a reed-fringed lake that empties into Lough Ree.
With forestry work paying his bills, he planted native oak, ash, alder and birch and he ‘stitched in’ cuttings from the rarest native trees. He also propagated black poplars from the area, a species he believes may be native to Ireland. He discovered, and is propagating, a fast-growing birch he believes could replace Sitka spruce on the poorest soils.
Noel is deeply involved in saving native breeds. He keeps Bó Riacht cattle (a breed he has been pivotal in saving, as shown on RTÉ’s Ear to the Ground last November), Lough Ree goats and Roscommon sheep. He also keeps Connemara ponies; they will be useful, he says, if Bord na Móna asks him to graze neighbouring disused bogs for the benefit of wildlife.
He purchased a plot on Lough Ree’s Westmeath shore for its excellent wildlife value, and another on Belmullet peninsula in Mayo to help save the Corncrake; he found the rare Great Yellow Bumblebee was abundant there and is working to protect it (as well as Corncrake).
He applies zero chemicals to his lands and is proud of his wilder, wetter meadows; they harbour rare orchids and listed marsh fritillary butterflies. His plantations hold pine martens and woodcocks, his ponds and streams dragonflies, kingfishers. He has found some extremely rare (nationally protected) wild flowers in his neighbourhood.
Noel knows his local wildlife intimately and has been working for the NPWS and with BirdWatch Ireland on protecting the remaining curlews in the Lough Ree area, one of the species’ last strongholds.
Last year, he presented a video for Heritage Week on his local wildlife. Remarkably, it was shown unedited, such was his ability to make his points simply and coherently.
Noel is keenly aware that, to bring about change, not only on his lands but anywhere, you need support from your local community. He has been active in facilitating visitors and guiding tours of the area. He regularly accommodates organic farming volunteers, or WWOOFers, and is assisting former Lough Ree islanders with their plans for the deserted islands.
Noel is an excellent communicator and leaves a deep impression on everyone. He is a voice for rural Ireland’s future.
Nominator: Cóilín MacLochlainn, Editor, Native Woodland Trust