18 November 2023
Over 150 people attended the Upland Farming and Landscape Management Symposium in Westport, Co. Mayo on Thursday 16th November. The symposium was organised by Teagasc in collaboration with the College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE) from Northern Ireland.
The symposium brought together farmers, scientists, policymakers, knowledge transfer professionals and practitioners, as well as a number of rural and community organisations from across the island of Ireland engaged with farming, managing and utilising upland landscapes. The symposium had a mix of scientific presentations and panel discussions, with farmer and wider stakeholder contributions.
The symposium was structured in four key themes around Carbon, Water, Biodiversity and Livestock, and highlighted the key role for economically, socially and environmentally sustainable farming systems, with the farmer at the centre, to deliver positive results from uplands across these multiple objectives. The symposium highlighted the complex and inter-related aspects of upland landscapes across these four themes.
The event was opened by Professor Frank O’Mara, Director of Teagasc. He highlighted the importance of the symposium to showcase the wide range of ongoing work, both within Teagasc and across a wide range of organisations, around developing our understanding of the current and future role of farming systems in the uplands to deliver in terms of both food production and positive environmental benefits.
Paul McHenry, Head of the Knowledge Advisory Service in CAFRE, also highlighted the ongoing work in Northern Ireland, including at the CAFRE Hill Farm at Glenwherry, Co. Antrim, to develop the knowledge base and upland management practices that can be beneficial to both livestock output and water, carbon and biodiversity outcomes.
Dr. Catherine Keena, Countryside Management Specialist with Teagasc, outlined the history of how the succession of policies have affected upland farming systems and environments, highlighting that farmers have always proven adaptable and responsive to policy drivers and incentives.
She also spoke about the important role agricultural advisors play in supporting farmers with practice adoption and farming system development. However, she also indicated that farming and environmental outcomes, particularly in terms of biodiversity and habitats, have not always been positive.
Focussing on carbon, the audience heard from Dr. Florence Renou Wilson, UCD, that blanket bogs in the uplands contain a significant quantity of carbon. However, this carbon accumulates very slowly, and depends on water for this to happen. Draining of peats in the uplands can therefore result in carbon loss. A key objective for upland management should therefore be to maintain carbon stocks by reducing these losses. Water table management and the avoidance of vegetation loss resulting in the exposure of bare peat, were amongst the management tools highlighted to help achieve this.
Nicola Warden, Senior Biodiversity Technologist with CAFRE, commented how measures are being implemented by CAFRE, with the support of partner organisations through the Glenwherry Hill Regeneration Partnership, to improve upland habitats. Results from the Glenwherry farm have shown positive increases in red grouse, snipe, curlew, lapwing and hare populations, while also showing that lamb and beef output has been improving concurrently. Benefits of new technologies and practices including forest removal to reduce predation of nesting birds as well as virtual fencing technologies for livestock are contributing to positive results for habitats.
The symposium also heard from Cormac McConigley, Catchment Manager with LAWPRO in the Western Region, that potential pressures associated with agriculture and forestry do persist in the uplands. However, water bodies with higher proportions of their catchment within upland areas tend to have higher overall quality than those in lowland areas. The maintenance of these water bodies as high and good quality is an ongoing objective.
The final session of the symposium included a summary by Declan Byrne, Teagasc, of the progress being made in the Wicklow Mountains arising from the Sustainable Uplands Agri-environment Scheme (SUAS) EIP project. The work of the farmers within the project has highlighted that the sustainability of upland grazing systems are dependent on the right type and numbers of livestock, at the right time of year and in the right areas of the uplands. The discussion on livestock systems, which included advisory and farmer perspectives highlighted the need for bottom-up and collaborative approaches in seeking solutions for upland systems based on high quality research and science.
In summing up the symposium, Dr. Stan Lalor, Director of Knowledge Transfer in Teagasc, commented on the positivity that was evident, both from farmers and from wider stakeholders, in the sustenance and development of farming systems in the uplands. Significant momentum has been created around how upland farming systems can be developed through collaborative initiatives, and can be supported through policy and results-based incentives. However, the overall economic and social viability of farm systems to support farm households and rural communities will be a fundamental requirement in order to achieve and enhance the environmental potential that exists within upland landscapes.
Presentations from the symposium are available.