If you are a farmer and have:
- heard of the loss of nature across Ireland, and
- the worries about climate change and how land can help both hang onto carbon and also soften the impacts of climate change, then why not let this change start with you? Sustainable, nature-friendly farming makes more sense, both financially and environmentally. Examples:
- Pollination: Farmers growing crops such as oilseed rape, apples and strawberries, and vegetable crops like peas or courgettes are dependent on pollinators. Nitrogen fixing clovers in grassland swards are also insect pollinated. So, what do bees, nature’s best-known pollinators, need? Food (pollen and nectar), shelter (domestic bees – hives; wild bees – cavities which they excavate in soil, or long grass) and protection from insecticides. More information at pollinators.ie
- Healthy Soils: The more earthworms and microbes in your soil, the better functioning the soil (e.g. improved nutrient cycling, improved soil structure, more carbon etc.) more nutritious your crops will be. Earthworms and other soil organisms till your soil, aerating and draining it; they are the living, beating heart of your soil.
- Shelter Belts: Hedgerow removal exposes livestock to wind and rain, as well as airborne diseases. For tillage farmers, hedgerow removal allows your soil, when dry, to blow away and, when wet, to silt up nearby rivers and streams. With increasing variable weather conditions that our generation is experiencing, now known to be a manifestation of climate warming, makes looking after your animals/crops/soil more labour intensive and therefore more expensive.
- Local Amenity: Not only are you managing your farm, you are managing the landscape, air and water quality for your local community. A farm’s impact is not restricted to its boundaries; the water, the plants, the animals that depend on these (including us) are healthier in the wider community if you are farming for biodiversity and leaving the water and air cleaner and fresher. This in turn has a knock-on effect to physical and mental health benefits to both you as the farmer and those around you.
- Legacy: You are leaving a legacy for the next generations; if when they inherit it, it is already damaged they face a much greater challenge to create the best natural environment for their families and local communities. As one of our farming ambassadors, Sean O’Farrell said we need to think ‘seven generations from now’. The land has a value beyond money and that value can be increased by farming for nature.
You can really help these big problems by taking steps on your farm to look after and bring back nature.
The first step to improving the value of your farm is to have a look at what wildlife it currently supports. Take some time to map what broad habitats (land types e.g. wetland, peatland, grassland fertilised and with zero inputs, woodlands, hedgerows and trees, river and lakes, tillage and arable areas, farm buildings) are already there. Noting down some species if possible. As a general rule the areas with no chemical inputs i.e. semi-natural are higher in biodiversity, it will be easier to plan how to improve them. Similarly, understanding what areas of your farm are most important for wildlife can help you to protect them.
There are a variety of free and easy to use apps that can help with this task if you want to learn more about what is on your farm. These apps can help to identify and record plants, bird song, or make maps for what habitats are on the farm.
- Biodiversity Data Capture: Allows you to record and submit wildlife sighting to the National Biodiversity Data Centre
- BirdNet or similar: Helps to identify bird calls
- Plantnet: Helps to identify plants using photos
- ViewRanger: Mapping app that can be used to map habitats found on the farm
- Many more free nature-focused apps are also available
See our 15 points for starting to improve nature on your farm here.
You can still have a tidy farmyard while allowing space for wildlife. Allowing a rich variety of species to live throughout your farm makes it a more enjoyable working experience. This is about changing the mindset in our modern world of tidiness.
Perhaps consider making management changes bit by bit; allocate 100m of your farm to biodiversity each year and build on that. Alternatively, approach it task by task such as consider the verges or the hedgerows as your area for biodiversity for this year and focusing on a different aspect next year. Small changes such as delaying the frequency of mowing may add to the beauty of your farmland by allowing wildflowers to bloom. This is a very small action that offers major benefits to wildlife without impacting on the neatness of your farm. Likewise, reducing the frequency of hedge cutting can greatly help wildlife without having a negative impact on the farm. Areas of nature provide points of interest on the farm so give them a chance to show off not only their importance to wildlife, but their beauty and you may discover their beauty trumps manicured areas anyway.
See our 15 points for starting to improve nature on your farm here.
Many organic farms have been shown to have huge benefits as a result of factors such as varied crop rotations, mixed farming systems, sympathetic hedgerow management and less chemicals is definitely better for the soil and the species living off it. However some organic farms can also be intensive and therefore not necessarily the best for biodiversity as intensification doesn’t always allow for full lifecycles and species variety. And in some cases like the uplands it has hindrances to natural process of grazing for biodiversity. So you don’t have to be certified organic to farm the best you can for nature. Making space for nature is the way to go whether you are organic or not! You can just use less chemicals or ideally be chemical-free to have less impact on the soil, the plants, and the animals and the water, and also look at the species and habitats you have on your farm and enhance them for biodiversity.
The practices and systems developed in organic farming over the years have played a major role in our transition to a more nature based and climate proofed agriculture. It is a system where a nature based regenerative approach is taken to the farm and its environment as a foundation.
Not only farming for nature but farming with nature.
(Thomas and Claire O Connor Farming for Nature Ambassadors 2019)
There are plenty of sources online for instance:
- For native flowers see here and you can search by flowering month, colour or habitat.
- For native trees see here and it will give you advice on different trees.
- For native birds see here.
- For native butterflies and other insects see here.
For a complete breakdown of all Irish species, the National Biodiversity Data Centre is a key source with a dataset of information on each on. For more information go to www.biodiversityireland.ie
If you are planting wildflowers, trees or scrubs, it is preferable to go for native Irish species as they support the native insect life, the native bird life and the whole ecosystem in general tends to be healthier as it is more diverse. Native species also tend to be less invasive and unpredictable as they have adapted to fit within the Irish ecosystem.
- The National Biodiversity Data Centre is good source of information on all native species.
- Irish Wildflowers to search by flowering month, colour or habitat.
- Tree Council of Ireland for advice on different native trees.
- Birdwatch Ireland for information on different native birds.
- Biodiversity Maps for information on native butterflies and other insects.
Invasive species are plants or animals that have been introduced to Ireland that can have a negative impact. Invasive species can be very damaging to habitats and biodiversity if they are not managed properly. As the word suggest, they invade and take over the landscape, leaving little room for other species to survive. See here a list of invasive species that exist in Ireland.
Additionally, invasive species can also harm people, farmland and buildings if not dealt with. Rhododendron leaves have special chemicals in them which limit the growth of nearby plants and cause damage to the soil, crops and habitats nearby. Species such as Japanese knotweed have a large root network which can damage the foundations of buildings and can regrow from fragments if not removed properly. Giant hogweed is a huge 2-5m plant that is a serious danger to people. Its sap can cause severe blistering on skin when exposed to sunlight. As such, it is important to check what is the best way to deal with any invasive species on your land as using the correct removal method is essential to prevent them causing harm or spreading further. If you notice any invasive species, you should report your sightings the National Biodiversity Data Centre here.
A better seed mix with more species can offer better resilience in times of drought as rooting depths will vary, also enabling plants to pick up more nutrients. Research has shown that even a small change from monoculture perennial rye grass sward to a grass and clover or grass-clover-herb mix can maintain and enhance yields with fewer inputs. Pollinators are also increased in a mixed farming system and these pollinators can provide essential pollination in other areas of the farm. You should seek advice to choose a seed mix to suit your conditions.
Relevant website links:
- Germinal Seeds are Irish-based and can make up bespoke grass mixes on demand.
- Fruit Hill Farm are also Irish and have a good selection of seeds.
- Cotwolds Seeds are UK-based and can be a bit dearer but are considered a good reliable source of seeds
- The Soil Association UK offers technical advice on getting good healthy soils.
- This booklet from ADHB has advice on assessing and managing healthy soils.
- The Sustainable Food Trust UK host many articles on healthy soils.
This varies depending on how you have managed the land beforehand and what is in the surrounding environment. Ideally, see what grows back first and then if it is not good for pollinators, consider seeding with green hay from a species rich source. Fence off an area from April-September just to see what is there, then let the cattle in the area to graze, compact, fertilize and lightly poach (helps germination of seeds). Excluding cattle altogether has shown that the stronger grasses, and rushes thrive while the less aggressive ones (herbs etc) are choked. If cattle aren’t an option, alternatively, till into the hedgerow base and see what comes out of the seed bed, there might still be something there. It may take a few years and is a slower route than reseeding with wildflowers each year but it is possibly more self-sustaining in the long run.
Relevant website links:
- Farm Wildlife UK has information on farming for flower-rich habitats.
An ideal hedgerow is left wild and to grow as it wants. But realistically on a farm you might have to manage the hedgerows.
A healthy managed hedgerow should be:
- Minimum 2-3 metres wide.
- To avoid the whole lot being cut at once, hedgerows should only be cut on a 3-5 year rotation. Ideally, only cut a short section of the hedgerow in any one year as this allows flowers and berries to grow on the older trees.
- In a 3-year rotation cut only a third in winter. If the fields either side of a hedgerow are under the same management, consider cutting one side this year, other side next.
- Side trim only – a minimum 2.5 to 4 metres high above ground or above the bank and A-shaped but ideally allow it all to grow up.
- 8-9 tree or shrub species per 30 metre strip – consider replanting if needed.
- Leave all trees grow to maturity
- Leave space for flowers and grasses to grow at the base – at least 2m from the fence. Up to 5m for tillage farmers with large fields (creating space for pollinators and predators which support crop yields).
- Don’t cut between March and August to aid nesting, pollination. It is even better if the hedgerow is only cut between November-January.
- Where you must cut hedges along the roadside for safety let the internal side of hedgerow flower.
- Whilst the modern flailing machine can make hedgerow management easier for the farmer it does cause some serious damage to hedgerow habitats unless carried out correctly. Please consider the alternatives and the above guidelines before you or your contractor starts.
For more information, see our tips on how to manage for nature with our FIELD BOUNDARIES section.
New hedgerows can be planted from mid-Autumn until late winter. Once the leaves begin to fall, you can start planting your new hedgerows. When planning your new hedgerow, remember to plant a variety of native flowering species grown from local sources to maximise the benefit to wildlife. Also, try to connect new hedgerows to existing natural habitats to create corridors for wildlife. The All-Ireland Pollinator Plan has some excellent resources on managing new and existing hedgerows for wildlife. More information here.
Wildflower areas should be cut back in the Autumn. Allow the plants to flower and set seed first before trimming them. The wildflower cuttings then need to be removed to avoid enriching the soil as wildflowers generally grow better on poorer soils. When cuttings are left in place, it encourages the growth of more competitive grasses which out compete the wildflowers. More information here.
How do I keep the hedges or wildflowers from short circuiting the electric fences without spraying them?
You can buy cut-out switches that enable the electric fencing to be more high-powered in the sections where the cattle are to strategically manage those fields. Or in a field with (say) sections of stock-proof hedge alternating with gappy sections, you can fit cut-out switches limiting the electrified fence to sections where cattle might otherwise break through.
While many wildflowers don’t grow to the height of a fence, you can selectively cut the taller ones such as thistles. Using a mechanical hedge cutter before March allows you to cut back large shrubs and bramble., Where space allows, position the fence at least 2m from the hedge. Cattle will, in any case, graze much of the grass underneath the wire.
In winter trim the hedge on a rotation of 2-3 years. Don’t cut the top, just trim the sides to keep them away from the fences. See more information on hedgerow management above.
If you have an abundance of weeds on your farm, investigate why this is so. Some weeds are associated with surplus nutrients in the soil. Remember a weed is only a plant in the wrong location as perceived by the land manager. Many plants that are perceived as weeds in monoculture grasslands are actually beneficial for production e.g. plantain now included in multi species sward seed mixes. Of course there are certain species you don’t want in a particular areas particularly in high numbers (e.g. creeping thistles, docks). Understanding why a weed is growing may be a reflection of the condition of your soils. On well-managed grassland weeds are less of a problem; a closed sward prevents weeds establishing.
”Weeds” may be valuable for biodiversity; it may be best to strike a balance between actions needed to manage your farm effectively and allowing space for nature. How to manage weeds may depend on their lifecycle. Some ‘weeds’ support wildlife. For example, dandelions provide early nectar and pollen for bees emerging in spring and is not a problem in grassland areas. It can be considered a valuable forage herb in grasslands and alternatively a weed in an arable crop. Thistles provide nectar for butterflies and seeds for finches, and ivy is an excellent autumn food source for a whole host of pollinators and birds.
- Docks grow in areas of disturbance and compaction. – Excessive fertiliser use is not only a waste of money, but will encourage their growth.
- Regular cutting and grazing will result in a decline in docks over time.
- While docks can be dug out, this can result in bare ground allowing more problem species to colonise.
- Spot treatments using herbicides can be used but will require repeated applications and should be considered a last resort in species-rich areas as it can also kill wildflowers.
- But before doing any of the above it is well worth looking at or under the leaves for green dock beetles, the farmers’ friend – see website below: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/may/26/country-diary-allendale dock-beetle
- Ragwort is poisonous to livestock . Preventing overgrazing is the best method of ensuring this plant doesn’t get a foothold in your grassland. If it does become an issue, there are a variety of options you can take.
- You can pull the plant manually before it sets seed although this is very labour intensive especially on bigger farms.
- Ploughing is the most effective control method especially if the area is to be turned over to arable on a 3-4-year rotation.
- You can also cut ragwort before it goes to seed. In both cases, you may need to repeat the following year
- A spot treatment herbicide treatment can be used but, as livestock will eat the plants after they have been sprayed, they must be removed from the fields until the plants have decayed completely. A herbicide treatment may not completely eradicate ragwort as the plants do not all germinate at once.
- Ensure cuttings are removed to a suitable location, far from livestock as this plant is toxic to animals if eaten.
- As ragwort is toxic and can be absorbed through the skin, Teagasc recommend wearing gloves when handling it ragwort
- But note, where ragwort does not pose a hazard to livestock, it is the food plant of the cinnabar moth caterpillar, and hence will enrich the biodiversity of your farm.
- These plants are perennials and ’spread by ‘creeping’ through the soil. They may indicate a calcium and potassium deficiency ; you will need to have your soil analysed to determine whether this is so. They may form a stable patch unless their roots are broken into pieces. Control methods include:
- Cutting the stems before flowering to prevent seeding. This is the most effective long term, non-chemical solution.
- Cultivation is not suitable as it breaks the roots into smaller pieces which can each regrow into a new plant
- The creeping thistle has a long tap root which makes herbicides less effective. Spot chemical treatment may be used if necessary but is unlikely to work long-term.
- But note the creeping thistle is provides nectar for butterflies and seeds for thistles so perhaps there is potential to leave it in sections of your farm where it doesn’t effect you?
- Spear thistles are annual plants that spread by seeds. Unlike the creeping thistle they don’t spread by underground roots and as such are easier to manage.
- Cut them before they go to seed and they will die back.
- If done before mid-July, hand hoeing is also effective.
- However, spear thistles are great for pollinator species. Their seeds are also an important food source for goldfinches in the autumn.
- This species tends to be associated with disturbed soil where nutrients have been released. They don’t tend to spread. If they are spreading, then there may be something wrong with nutrient balance of the soil.
Nettles are 27% protein rich and are a great soil conditioner, but their rhizomes are quick to colonise neglected land.
- If control is needed, mowing in early to mid-summer can be very effective in reducing the population.
- When topping, leave a sunlit-patch for bees, butterflies and hoverflies.
- For isolated patches, digging out is also effective.
- Hoeing will kill off young seedlings.
Wild Oats can be pulled by hand. Some varieties are taller than the crop and easily spotted, but the ones that are shorter need to be pulled by rogueing.
- Crop rotation between early, late and autumn seeded crops can also be effective. More info here.
- Ultimately if you have no other choice, spot spraying can be considered but blanket spraying should not be an option. Please be aware that many countries have already banned products like ‘Roundup’; if Ireland follows suit such chemicals may not be an option in the future. As such, trialling non-chemical weed control may make such a transition easier in the future.
It is said that the more you feed your soil with compost and manure, the less it will need herbicides. Soil aeration is also important. Irish soils tend to be wet and heavy and need more air. Maintaining healthy soils with lots of earthworms ensures the soils are naturally aerated without the need for mechanical intervention. As a guide, if you dig a hole 20×20 cms it should contain more than 8 earthworms. Instructions on how to assess the earthworm population can be found in the further information along with a guide on how to interpret the results .
As earthworms are good indicators of healthy soil, take a spade and count how many earthworms you have in a 20cm2 hole; as a rough guide there should be more than 8. (Instructions on how to count earthworms can be found in the further information (more info here) along with a guide on how to interpret the results (more info here.) Earthworms also contribute to the activity and distribution of microbes, essential for recycling nutrients.
The more nutrient-rich the soil, the more microbes exist within it. Soils are the lifeblood of any farm. By caring for them, you can improve your farm’s carbon footprint, improve its resilience to drought, improve drainage, improve the quality of your crops, have better control of pest species and encourage more nature on your farm, both above and below ground.
By creating an integrated pest management plan, you can reduce pesticide dependence with nature’s help. Pesticides wipe out both pests and predators. One nature-friendly farmer mentioned that ‘you have to trust that the natural predators will return’. Leave the verges unsprayed, so that the natural predators can make a return. Beetle banks and herbal leys provide shelter for predators, which in turn provide natural pest control. Advice on how to set up these systems are outlined on our Tillage How To do Guide. Don’t farm for resistance, farm for natural resilience.
As one of our farmer’s said: “House sparrows were all over my oats, the field was alive. When I realised that they were eating all the aphids, that was the day I never sprayed my fields again. And I haven’t needed to. Nature has it all under control if you let it.”
Pesticide, herbicides, fungicides, insecticides and other industrial chemicals are widespread in modern farming. However, they find their way into our air, water and soil, and even into our food, causing serious damage to wildlife and natural systems. These chemicals have been linked to the widespread decline of pollinators.
They also affect the health of the soil; broad spectrum sprays attack beneficial organisms along with the troublemakers. Among these beneficial organisms are nutrient recyclers and natural pest controllers. As they decline due to chemical use, farmers become more reliant on chemicals to provide the functions that nature provides for free. By reducing chemical use, natural systems may rebuild themselves over time, thereby reducing the need for chemicals.
Plastic covering is mostly used for maize growing as it is known to speed up germination and protect against late-Spring frosts. However, its biodegradability works best in sunlight. When there is less sunlight in wet years the plastic remains in the soil. Neither maize nor plastic coverings are beneficial for biodiversity.
Artificial fertilizer can upset the microbiology in the soil, especially when used to excess. Synthetic nitrogen or phosphorus fertilisers take away the jobs from the microbes and thus the whole soil, microbe, root interaction can collapse. Overuse of fertiliser can also cause too much nitrogen in the soil which then favours weed species such as thistles which can outcompete the rarer pollinator species.
These fertilizers can also leach into nearby water systems where fertiliser pollution in the water causes the growth of algal blooms which block light from reaching aquatic plants, causing them to die. These blooms use up the oxygen in the water and can lead to fish kills.
Opportunities are arising for farmers to reduce their artificial fertilizers with more research coming forward such as biosolids, biomethane, anaerobic digestion, dairy sludge etc. One way of supporting microbes in the soil is increase plant diversity (add a range of species and even non-grass species like yarrow and chicory) and use biostimulants to encourage microbes such as seaweed and compost extracts.
Sometimes these assessors need an education too! There are many other, rarer wild creatures depend on rats as part of their food chain or share the same habitat as them. As a result, rat poison can also kill other animals for example, barn owls and kestrels, plus other species such as hedgehogs. All these species are declining: avoid using poison wherever possible.
A rodent plan might include:
- A clean farm has less rodents. Cleaning up areas of surplus food should reduce the number of rats.
- Feed the cattle in the morning so there is no food source lying around in the evening when the rats are more active.
- Straw is ideal for rats’ nests; make sure there are no holes in the floor beneath the straw
- Farm cats or a good terrier can be a natural system to deal with a rodent problem. It is said that a neutered female cat is especially territorial. One farmer tells us how he feeds his cat just in a morning and she largely sleeps during the day, is less visible, then is on patrol at night. Note farm cats are predators of other wildlife around the farm, especially birds so it’s about finding a balance, or the right one!
- If you are adamant poison does have to go out, don’t leave it out once the problem has been dealt with.
Ponds, rivers, streams and marshy or wet areas are currently ineligible for payment under the EU Direct Payment schemes.
Autumn and winter are the best times to build a pond (more information here). However, avoid construction work in very wet weather as this can damage the soil.
Autumn is the ideal time to do any work on a pond.
The short answer is yes. Burning should not be done on raised bogs as it damages the living layer of vegetation. In blanket bogs in the UK, moorland is occasionally burned in controlled strips for grouse conservation. However, burning is generally not recommended for conserving peatlands and bogs. This is because burning dries out the surface of the bog and harms slow moving animals such as insects, some of which are rare and protected. Burning may also get out of control and spread beyond intended area causing widespread habitat destruction.
Peatlands are not suitable for forestry. The bogs and peatlands are naturally treeless landscapes due to their waterlogged nature. Trees only grow on damaged bogs that have been drained. As such, forestry severely damages the natural functions of the bogs and effects its ability to support wildlife. This is especially true of plantations of sika spruce and lodgepole pine. These trees are not native to Ireland and have very dense canopies that prevent anything from growing beneath them. These plantations hugely disrupt the ecology of the bogs and support very little life. As such, they are very bad for wildlife and the health of the bogs and peatlands. Planting on peatlands are no longer grant aided under state forestry programmes.
Coniferous plantations such as Sitka spruce and lodgepole pine are planted for fibre production and support reduced levels of biodiversity as in any intensive crop. The same principles apply as in intensive croplands, forestry plantations value to nature can be improved by incorporating space for nature in the crop, adapting management methods such as continuous cover forestry to minimise impacts of forestry operations etc. Sitka spruce and lodgepole pine, the main conifer trees used in plantations, are non-native; Irish species apart from some generalist woodland species are not adapted to making use of them.
If you wish to grow trees with higher nature value go for a native broadleaf woodland. Native forests are a valuable way to add biodiversity to your farm while also storing carbon from the atmosphere. Native, broadleaved woodlands generally have a much lighter, brighter canopy which lets light reach the plants on the forest floor. As they lose their leaves each year, they provide more light and leaf compost which earthworms will take down into the soil for other plants to benefit from. This in turn fosters a richer source of biodiversity. Native broadleaf forests have layers of life, ranging from insects and microbes in the soils, the herbs, plants, and small animals on the forest floor, to shrubs, climbing plants and the great pillars of mature trees. A deciduous forest is a thriving city of life and biodiversity when it is managed correctly. More information here on the Native Woodland Establishment Scheme.
- The new government forestry programme has a much broader range of options to support native woodlands and a new continuous cover forestry scheme. See the Woodland Improvement Scheme here. For general information on woodland grants go here.
- A few Environment Innovation Partnerships (EIPs) started in 2019, some of which wish to work with farmers in supporting the nature on their land. See whether you are in the remit of any of these EIPs in the list on our resources page.
- The Native Woodland Establishment Scheme gives a grant for 15 years for broadleaf planting with a premium each year. The downsides are that once it has gone to woodland it is hard to reclaim as farmland and the grant is only for 15 years. However, it does work well if you wish to have woodland on your farm. More information here.
- Hedgerows can be financed and put in as part of the Single Farm Payments
- GLAS, the only government rural environmental scheme is now closed.
We currently do not have the capacity to send people out to each farm but if you email firstname.lastname@example.org with your specific queries in relation to farming for nature we will get a relevant ecologist, farm advisor or fellow farmer to answer it. Also your local NPWS ranger may able to help with specific wildlife-related questions.
Why not look at a series of short videos we have from Farming For Nature Ambassadors in the past here, listen to a series of podcasts from different farmers that have made changes to their farms here, or attend our series of Farm Walks that we are holding over the summer months here.
The National Biodiversity Data Centre website (www.biodiversityireland.ie) encourages you to submit sightings of wildlife. You could also share it with your local community by organising a farm tour with the local community group or the local school – after all these are the future farmers and food producers. Just check that your public liability farm insurance covers it.
You could start by asking them to look at this website, subscribe to our bimonthly newsletter by emailing email@example.com and then you can share with them, show them our How To Do Guides, our videos and podcast so that they can hear from other farms how they are doing it and what actions they can do for nature.
The above questions were generated from our conversations with farmers that want to make changes, they are aimed at the typical farm. We are grateful to our Farming For Nature Ambassadors and supporting ecologists in helping us to answer them. Please note that these are not comprehensive. If you have a pressing question that is not in the above, please email us on firstname.lastname@example.org and we will do our best to respond.
If you wish to know more please see our HOW TO DO GUIDES BY LANDTYPE.
See our 15 points for starting to improve nature on your farm HERE.
The development of this section has been supported by the National Parks and Wildlife Service
and the Department of Agriculture, Food, and the Marine