Wherever you go in Ireland small potato ridges mark the hills as a reminder of how farming has changed. In some parts of the country, farmers still carry on with the old methods. Such practises are highly valued both from tourism and heritage perspectives, because they are working examples of a farming model that is thousands of years old. As many wildlife species evolved alongside humans and adapted to survive in these farming systems, mechanisation hit them hard.
We all know about the corncrake whose habit of nesting in meadows meant it lost out to early silage harvesting. Similarly, nine indigenous plant species have been registered as extinct, two more are artificially maintained and seven others are critically endangered. These latter include meadow saffron, cottonweed, rough poppy and two types of saxifrage. Fifty-two further plant species are endangered, including the cornflower, little robin, bog orchid and the Kerry lily. Many species are highly specialised, for example the orange-tipped butterfly prefers to lay its eggs on cuckoo-flowers or garlic mustard. Reduction in plant diversity is thus mirrored by animal losses.
High Nature Value (HNV) Farming is a non-intensive method of farming intended to bolster native wildlife by promoting traditional methods. For example, meadows become rich in wildlife if they are not heavily fertilized and only cut at summer's end, when wild-flowers have set their seed and ground-nesting birds like skylarks have finished breeding. Of course this affects yield, but the nutrient content of hay or silage from diversely populated meadows is much higher, especially with regard to trace elements.
HNV designation has been identified as a means of compensating farmers for adopting wildlife-friendly practises. Much of the North-West has already been designated HNV but, so far, HNV farming has been more of a talkshop than an action station. There have been numerous conferences and papers published discussing its merits, but little financial support. Farmers in Glas who qualify for HNV receive extra payments, but these do not match previous compensation under REPS. If the government and the EU are serious about HNV they will need to put their money where their mouth is and properly support HNV farmers, who are making great sacrifices to preserve crucial national heritage and biodiversity.