Frequently Asked Questions
Why should I ‘farm for nature’?
Nature on the farm comprises all of the natural resources in the farming landscape, including soil, water, plants and animals. Farmers manage these resources and interact with nature on a daily basis to produce food. In a modern agriculture and land management context, however, farmers are expected to do more than just produce food. They are also tasked with managing nature to produce a range of other services that are crucial to society. These services include climate and water regulation, the management of space for nature and the provision of aesthetic landscapes. To help farmers to deliver this range of services, Farming for Nature seeks to demonstrate and support farming practices that protect and enhance nature on the farm.
Some reasons for including nature in farming decisions:
- Pollinating and predatory insects are key to our food production. Currently, insects are dramatically declining due to increased insecticide use and reduced availability of natural habitats. If this decline continues, it will result in reduced pollination, more pest outbreaks and increased food production costs.
- Hedgerows are a key habitat for our native flora and fauna. Hedgerow removal or over-cutting means less habitat for wildlife as well as less shelter and shade for livestock. Removing hedgerows may also increase the risk of flooding, erosion, spray drift and airborne diseases.
- Healthy soils are the foundation of sustainable farming. The more earthworms, fungi and microbes in your soil, the better the soil will function (e.g. improved nutrient cycling, improved soil structure, increased carbon storage). Maintaining healthy soils can also lower the costs you face in production, lead to healthier and more nutrient dense crops/swards and safeguard the viability of the farm for future generations.
- Healthy watercourses can enhance local biodiversity, ensure cleaner, healthier water for livestock and people and help to mitigate against the risks of floods and droughts.
- Income: most farmers take part in agri-environment schemes. Such schemes are evolving away from a focus solely on food production and towards a broader focus on environmentally sustainable farming practices. Future schemes will most likely reward those farmers who deliver most for society across both food production and environmental measures.
- Legacy: by farming for nature you are creating a sustainable legacy for future generations and contributing to a better future for all.
Where do I start?
Go to our link on 16 pointers on how to start farming for nature here.
Does ‘farming for nature’ make financial sense?
Farming for nature can make economic sense too, especially if we take a long-term perspective.
Firstly, by relying more on nature, we can reduce expensive input costs. Plants like clovers can reduce our need for Nitrogen fertilisers, natural predators can reduce the need for chemical controls, min-till systems can reduce the need for fossil fuels. Healthy soils will yield better harvests over longer timeframes, while keeping freshwater clean is good for animal and human health.
Farming for nature can also help capture added value for our farm produce as more people become aware of the importance of local food and the nutritional value of sustainably produced food. Furthermore, farming for nature can create new economic opportunities – for instance in tourism, social farming and the creation of alternative natural products, from soaps to cheeses.
With agri-environment schemes moving towards a ‘result-based’ approach, its clear that farms with more high-quality habitat will stand to gain most financially from these schemes. They will also be less likely to receive penalties – and deductions from their CAP payments – for damaging the environment.
Farming for nature will also allow us to build resilience – this is very important as we face into the consequence of climate change – droughts, floods, storms – which can play havoc with the farm economy, from fodder crises to un-harvestable crops. By having a good natural infrastructure on the farm – multi-species swards, healthy hedgerows, soils, ponds and woodlands – we can provide shade, shelter and better resistance to weather extremes.
I like my farm to look ‘neat’, will farming for nature effect it?
You can still have a tidy farmyard while allowing space for wildlife. Likewise, allowing a rich variety of species to live throughout your farm makes it a more enjoyable working environment. Over time, you may notice your mindset changing – areas that once looked ‘messy’ or ‘abandoned’ now look ‘full of life’ and ‘naturally beautiful’. Likewise, areas that once looked ‘neat’ and ‘tidy’ can now look empty, sad or devoid of nature and life.
Perhaps consider making management changes bit by bit; allocate a small area of your farm to biodiversity each year and build on that. Alternatively, approach it task by task. For example, consider the verges or the hedgerows as your area for biodiversity this year and focus on a different area next year.
Small changes can also be powerful. For example, delaying the frequency of cutting pastures in summer 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. 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 – give them a chance to show off not only their importance to wildlife, but also their natural beauty (you may discover their beauty trumps that of manicured areas)!
See our 16 points for starting to improve nature on your farm here.
Is organic farming the only way to go?
When compared to non-organic farming practices, organic practices can have enormous benefits for nature and the natural environment.
Organic farmers do not use synthetic pesticides, herbicides or fertilisers or use any products (e.g. animal feed) that have been produced using these harmful chemicals. Organic farming also has much higher standards of animal welfare and much more stringent rules regarding the use of products for dosing animals than non-organic farming.
On the flip side, you don’t have to be certified as organic to engage in these more nature friendly practices. However, it is worth running the numbers as, if you are making space for nature, going organic could be a helpful way to pay for it.
Finally, organic farming is not always the answer – some intensive organic farm enterprises can still be very damaging to natural habitats. However, they are usually still less damaging than the equivalent intensive non-organic farming practices.
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)
How do I know what native species already exist on my land?
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 see here.
- For native 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
Why should I use native species if replanting or reseeding?
Native species have co-evolved with the native flora and fauna of Ireland over many thousands of years. As such, they provide food and habitats for much more of our wildlife than non-native species. Also, many non-native species (that evolved elsewhere) don’t have any natural predators or competitors in Ireland. As such, they can grow unimpeded (e.g. sycamore in hedgerows) and outcompete our native species. Finally, some non-natives can become invasive in certain conditions, for example fuscia, rhododendron, or sea buckthorn.
Why does it matter if I have invasive species on my land?
Invasive species are plants (e.g. rhododendron, Japanese knotweed) or animals (e.g. American mink, New Zealand flatworm) that have been introduced to Ireland from other countries and can cause serious harm to nature, people, farmland and buildings. Invasive species don’t have any natural predators or competitors in Ireland. As such, they can reproduce unimpeded and outcompete our native species. If unmanaged, these species will spread to other areas in your locality, becoming increasingly difficult to control and causing ever-increasing economic and environmental damage.
See here for the complete guide to Ireland’s invasive species.
If I need to reseed my pasture what seed mix should I use?
Ideally, reduce or avoid reseeds and focus on more natural methods of improving your pasture.
If reseeds are absolutely necessary, opt for multi-species swards. Research has shown that even a small change from a monocultural perennial rye grass (PRG) sward to a grass and clover or grass-clover-herb mix can maintain and enhance yields with fewer inputs. Diverse (multi-species) swards can also offer better drainage and better productivity in times of drought, as rooting depths will vary. Including flowering plants in your mix can also provide essential food for pollinators.
You should seek advice to choose a seed mix to suit your conditions but some good tips are to opt for as diverse a mix as possible, to choose organically produced seed whenever available and to avoid chemically treated seed mixes (make sure to ask the supplier as most seed mixes are now pre-treated!) as these seed treatments can have long term damaging effects on your soil.
Another more natural way to reseed and increase diversity in your pasture is to spread hay that has been cut from old natural hay meadows – just be sure careful that the hay does not contain any non-native or invasive species!
Do I need to plant native flowers or will they just turn up in areas I manage for nature?
This can depend on how you have managed the land and what is in the surrounding environment and residual seed bank. The seeds of some species can lie dormant in the soil for centuries, waiting for the ideal conditions to germinate. The seeds of other species are less long lived and may require a helping hand to recolonize an area. Ideally, see what grows back first. If you are keen to increase diversity further, consider seeding with green hay from a species rich meadow. Seeding with store-bought wildflower mixes is now generally considered less nature friendly than other methods – Don’t sow, let it grow!
To see what’s in your natural seed bank – fence off an area from April-September and see what emerges.
Try using livestock to naturally boost diversity-
- Lightly grazing with cattle can help to push back stronger grasses and allow more fragile herbs and flowers to emerge.
- Sheep will reduce the diversity of pasture over time. This is because (unlike cattle) they are selective grazers and will eliminate certain (tasty!) plants before moving onto courser grasses.
- Many annual plants require ‘disturbed ground’ to geminate. This is why many annuals are termed ‘tillage weeds’. Rootling pigs can mimic the action of wild boar – turning over sods and allowing space for annual wildflowers to grow.
See below our links to useful resources, habitats and other links.
What does an ideal hedgerow for nature look like?
An ideal hedgerow is left to grow undisturbed and to be as wide and tall as possible. However, some unmanaged hedgerows can turn into lines of ‘leggy’ trees (sometimes termed ‘toilet brush hedgerows’!) – which are less valuable for wildlife. Also, on a farm, you have to manage hedgerows if they impinge on electric fencing or cause a road safety hazard. Click the below link to learn about how best to manage your farm hedgerows for wildlife.
More information on field boundaries here.
When is the best time to put in a new hedgerow?
Click the below link to learn about the best time and methods for planting hedgerows on Irish farms.
More information on field boundaries here.
When can I cut back my wildflowers?
Cut as late in the season as possible – ideally allow the plants to finish flowering and to set seed before cutting. This means your meadows will naturally be reseeded each year. As wildflowers generally grow better on poorer soils, wildflower cuttings need to be removed to avoid enriching the soil. When cuttings are left in place, it encourages the growth of more competitive grasses, which will outcompete the wildflowers over time.
More information on grasslands here.
How do I keep the hedges or wildflowers from short-circuiting the electric fences, without spraying them?
- Grazing livestock will usually tidy up the vegetation immediately below the fence line and solve this issue for you.
- You can also buy cut-out switches that enable the electric fencing to be more high-powered in certain sections (for example where there are gaps in hedgerows or simply in the fields that have livestock in them).
- While many wildflowers don’t grow to the height of a fence, you can selectively cut the taller ones such as thistles.
- Where space allows, position the fence at least 2m from the hedge to avoid issues with larger branches reaching the electric wire. Using a mechanical hedge cutter before March allows you to cut back large shrubs and bramble.
- 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.
More information on grasslands here.
How do I manage my weeds without herbicides?
Weeds are ‘indicator species’ and can tell us important information about our soils. Often managing the health of the soil and the sward (or crop), rather than the weed, is the nature-friendly solution to on-farm weed management. See the link below for information about what your weeds are telling you about your soil.
Link to external resource on indicator species
As different animals favour eating different plant species, rotationally grazing your pasture with cattle, sheep, horses or donkeys can also help to manage weed (as well as worm!) burdens. Conduct some research into which species eat your particular ‘problem’ weeds and at which times of the year and plan accordingly. For example, sheep are known for eating ragwort during its early growth stage in the spring.
It’s also helpful to remember than many ‘weeds’ are simply native wildflowers that are ‘growing in the wrong place’. Many native ‘weeds’ provide crucial food for birds and insects. Sometimes it can be helpful to relax a little bit when it comes to weed management and to recognise the beauty in these wild plants – aim to strike a balance between actions needed to manage your farm effectively and allowing space for nature.
For specific guidelines on docks, ragwort, thistles, nettles and wild oats – See here for our information on indicator species which tell you what your soil is trying to.
What is considered good healthy soil for biodiversity? And why do I need it?
More information on soils and arable lands here.
See here for our information on indicator species which tell you what your soil is trying to.
How can I replace pesticide use?
Replace pesticide use by adopting organic farming methods and creating an integrated pest management plan.
Pesticides wipe out both the pests and the predators of the pests. With no predators to curb their population growth, the pests can then return in force! Eliminate pesticides and take action to boost populations of predatory insects. As one of our Ambassadors 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.”
How does pesticide use affect the wider environment?
Pesticides, 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, human health and natural systems.
On farms, these chemicals have also been linked to the widespread decline of pollinators and beneficial soil microbes. These declines mean that farmers become ever 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 further reducing the need for chemicals.
Are plastic coverings good for my soil biodiversity?
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 and may never fully break down – leaving residues of micro-plastics in your soils.
Do artificial fertilizers have a negative effect on nature?
- Artificial fertilizer can upset the microbiology of the soil, especially when used to excess.
- Overuse of fertiliser can also cause too much nitrogen in the soil, favouring weed species and reducing native wildflowers.
- Fertilizers can also leach into nearby water systems causing algal blooms. These blooms block light from reaching aquatic plants causing them to die and also use up the oxygen in the water leading to fish kills.
- Synthetic fertilisers are also manufactured using fossil fuels, meaning their use directly contributes to the climate crisis.
What is the alternative to rat poison?
Many native species eat rats that have been poisoned, including, for example, barn owls and kestrels. The poison builds up in their systems, causing damage to internal organs and even death. To avoid the need to use poison, create a rodent management plan for your farm. Points to consider:
- A clean farm has fewer rodents. Cleaning up areas of surplus food should reduce the number of rats.
- Increase natural predator populations – buzzards and barn owls naturally prey on rats: provide habitat for these species on your farm.
- Feed cattle in the morning so there is less food lying around in the evening when rats are more active.
- Straw bedding is ideal for rats’ nests; make sure there are no holes in the floor beneath the straw.
- While farm cats can catch rodents, they can also decimate populations of other species of wildlife on the farm, including rare birds. Domestic cats are not good for nature!
If you are adamant poison does have to go out, record where it is placed and be sure to remove it again once the problem has been dealt with.
When is the best time to build a pond?
See our guide on how to build a wildlife pond on your land here
When can I carry out work on my pond?
See our guide on how to build a wildlife pond on your land here
Is burning bogs bad for wildlife?
The short answer is yes. Burning should not be carried out on raised bogs as it damages the living layer of vegetation. Burning bogs also 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 the intended area causing more widespread habitat destruction.
Is forestry bad for bogs?
Forestry severely damages the natural functions of bogs and affects their ability to support wildlife. Bogs and peatlands are naturally treeless landscapes due to their waterlogged nature. Trees only grow on damaged bogs that have been drained.
This is especially true of plantations of Sitka 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 bogs and peatlands. Planting on peatlands is no longer grant aided under state forestry programmes.
Should I set some of my land to coniferous plantation for biodiversity?
Coniferous plantations such as Sitka spruce and lodgepole pine are planted for intensive timber production and support very low levels of biodiversity after the first few years of establishment.
As per other cropland, you can increase the biodiversity value of a coniferous plantation by incorporating space for nature into the crop. However, if you would like to plant woodland for biodiversity the best option is native woodland or (even better) allowing native woodland to naturally regenerate on your land.
Native forests are a valuable way to add biodiversity to your farm while also storing carbon from the atmosphere. Native, broadleaf (deciduous) 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, deciduous trees also create more leaf compost, which earthworms will take down into the soil for other plants, microbes and fungi to benefit from. This in turn fosters a richer array of biodiversity above ground.
Native broadleaf forests have many layers of life, ranging from insects and microbes in the soils, to 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.
Is there any scheme that will help pay me to establish or manage my woodland?
See info on current schemes here.
What is rewilding?
Rewilding is a form of nature conservation. It can help tackle climate change, reverse the decline of our native species and offer a range of ecosystem services to the local community. Over the past few years, the term rewilding has come to mean different things to different people. However, at its core, it is a range of activities with the shared aim of restoring and protecting healthy and biodiverse ecosystems or wilderness areas.
Rewilding activities can include the removal of invasive species, the use of livestock to manage species-rich meadows or the natural regeneration of woodland. In some areas it can also involve reintroductions of native species that have become locally extinct. The end goal of ‘rewilding’ is to allow ‘rewilded’ areas to be managed by the rules of nature rather than by human interference.
For more info on rewilding check out Rewilding Britain’s resources: www.rewildingbritain.org.uk
Why should I leave part of my farm rewild?
Rewilding can help tackle climate change and reverse the decline of our native species. Rewilded land can also offer a range of ecosystem services to the farm and the local community. For example, naturally functioning ecosystems can help to filter and retain water during times of drought and prevent soil erosion during times of flood. If you are considering rewilding part of your farm do consider how that area could possibly be linked up to similar areas in the surrounding landscape, for example hedgerows can link pockets of woodland while streams and wet ditches can link wetland habitats, ponds or rivers.
What should I consider before rewilding land?
If you are considering a large-scale rewilding project it’s important to get expert help and advice from the beginning; while the end goal of rewilding is to allow nature to manage the land for you, it is important to get the early management right, particularly if you are transitioning the land from intensive agricultural practices. If you are experimenting with rewilding at a small scale, for example starting with a few acres, then the resources provided by Rewilding Britain might be a helpful place to start. www.rewildingbritain.org.uk
Can I get support to rewild part of my farm?
At present, there are no schemes directly paying farmers to rewild land. However, under the new Common Agricultural Policy (CAP23), changes in the eligibility criteria for the basic payment scheme mean that up to 50% of each eligible land parcel can be comprised of scrub or other beneficial biodiversity features. As such, if you are considering rewilding, it is worth speaking to your farm advisor about how this may affect your farm payments now and in the future.
It’s also worth speaking to your local authority, NPWS, LEADER, EPA and LAWPRO reps, as well as keeping an eye out for local and community biodiversity grants. While these may not advertise funding for ‘rewilding’ in particular, you may be able to use such grants towards the costs of aspects of rewilding projects, such as river or wetland restoration.
Does anaerobic digestion really reduce emissions?
Plans have been outlined to build 130 anaerobic digestion plants in Ireland by 2030. Anaerobic digesters capture methane gas from organic waste (including slurries). This gas can then be refined and sold as ‘biomethane’, which is marketed as a renewable natural gas (RNG).
Methane is a potent greenhouse gas and capturing it rather than allowing it to escape into the atmosphere is good for the planet. However, digesters only capture around half of the methane gas produced by cattle (the other half is produced by burps, which are not captured). With energy costs rising, there is some concern that (globally) farmers may be incentivized to produce ever more manure to fuel growing networks of anaerobic digesters, with knock-on effects for nature and climate. As such, the relationship between anaerobic digesters and the environment is not straightforward, but this fast-evolving technology is certainly one to keep an eye on over the coming years.
How can I make my farm more energy efficient?
See our ‘energy and fuel tips’ for each farming sector here.
I would like to talk to someone with experience about farming for nature about my farm?
We are running a programme called The Horse’s Mouth whereby fellow farmers can visit your farm and give you advice on your habitats and farming practices based on their own experience. Or, if you have a specific question, you can post it to our online Forum, where other farmers will have the opportunity to answer. Also, your local NPWS ranger may able to help with specific wildlife-related questions in your locality.
See our Advice section here.
I would love to learn more about how to farm for nature from farmers themselves?
Why not look at our series of short videos showcasing Farming For Nature Ambassadors, listen to conversations with different farmers that have made changes to their own farms on our podcast series, or attend some of our nationwide Farm Walks over the summer months.
If I find wildlife on my farm, where can I share it?
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 a local community group or local school – after all, these are the future farmers and food producers! Just check that your public liability farm insurance covers it.
How can I encourage my neighbouring farmers and others to get involved?
You could start by asking them to look at this website, or encourage them to subscribe to our bimonthly newsletter by emailing [email protected]. You can also share all our content – guides, stories, videos and podcasts with friends, colleagues and family on social media, by WhatsApp or by email.
The above questions and answers were generated from our conversations with farmers that got in touch with us as they wanted to know how best to make nature-friendly changes to their current farming practices. We are grateful to our Farming For Nature Ambassadors and supporting ecologists for helping us to answer these questions. Please note that these answers are not comprehensive: our answers are aimed at the typical farm, however, every farm is different and we encourage you to keep researching and experimenting to find the best solutions for nature on your own farm.
For more information on how to farm for nature, search by