Hill farmers and those farming uplands have been urged to “demand more money” in order to ensure they protect nature and biodiversity.

Prof. Florence Renou-Wilson, a research scientist at University College Dublin (UCD) was speaking at the 2023 Uplands Symposium in Westport, Co. Mayo yesterday (Thursday, Novembver 16) organised by Teagasc in association with the College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE) in Northern Ireland.

Prof. Renou-Wilson gave a presentation on the carbon cycle associated with peatland in the uplands, stating that the carbon cycle is “the most important of all biological processes on planet earth”.

She highlighted that human intervention has resulted in some negative impacts for nature, but that “we can rectify our mistakes”.

Peatlands and carbon

She explained that while there has been a great focus on peatland in the midlands, there is a great difference between bogs there, which are raised bogs, and the blanket bogs often seen in uplands.

According to the scientist who has been researching how to help peatland in Ireland for 25 years, Ireland’s peatlands store three times as much carbon as international wetland soils, on average.

She revealed that draining soil is the biggest contributor to the emission of carbon from soil. Carbon can be stored below a water table, but if that water table drops, then the carbon is released into the atmosphere,

The areas where the most carbon is lost is in deep drained peat, bare peat and nutrient-rich peat, adding that more vegetation on peatlands results in reduced emissions and pollution.

According to Prof. Renou-Wilson, for every 10cm in the water table, it could reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) by 3t/ha/yr.

“Overall carbon emission from peat soils drained for agriculture, could be greatly reduced without necessarily halting their productive use,” according to the scientist.

She advised that farmers need to know their soil properties; not only carbon but also the nutrient status.

She also urged farmers to understand what the water table baseline is by simply using wavin pipes and said knowing if it is an catchment-sensitive farming area is also very relevant.

Support for uplands and hill farmers

During a panel discussion after her presentation, the UCD scientist explained that her job is “to bring the science to the policy makers”.

She was joined on the panel by Prof. Gary Lanigan, Teagasc; Dr. Derek McLoughlin, project manager, Wild Atlantic Nature LIFE IP; and Tom Houlihan, Teagasc, which was chaired by head of sustainable land management at CAFRE, Mark Scott.

One question from the floor asked the professor how farmers can be expected to fulfil their commitment to nature and also sustain a viable income on uplands.

Prof. Renou-Wilson said: “Demand more money to fund the projects such as… EIPs. Demand more money for those, to prove to farmers that this is working.

“The more we have farmers enrolled on those EIPs, the better.”

In terms of seeking funding to support farmers improve and reinstate some areas of uplands from Donegal down to Kerry, Prof. Renou-Wilson added: “The focus has always been on the midlands.

“Bord na Móna owns 80,000ha. They got hundred millions. We have three times more uplands, three times. You need to demand then as much money to support the economies associated with those uplands.

“Nobody talked about the west of Ireland; it’s times to do that,” she said,