Hen harriers are a fantastic bird of prey, whose sky-dancing courtship ritual is admired and loved by all who have been lucky enough to witness it. Yet this magnificent creature has been the unwitting cause of a massive argument over designation and land values, which has threatened to distract everybody from the fact that hen harriers are endangered and might disappear forever, if we don't find a solution that suits everybody, including the birds.
We wanted to look at the hen harrier designation issue in detail and last week we spoke with Jason Fitzgerald of IFDL. This week we will examine the issue from the perspective of the hen harriers themselves and the broader perspective of climate mitigation. We will look at potential solutions to the impasse. John Lusby of Bird Watch Ireland offered his expert knowledge of raptors and we offer his views, and some of our own, on this topical matter.
As it happens, hen harrier, curlew and red grouse numbers in designated uplands have continued to fall since designations were introduced in 2007. Lusby outlines the worrying hen harrier decline: “The most recent national survey of Hen Harriers in 2015, estimated between 108 and 157 breeding pairs nationally. Assessment of trends in the areas monitored over the preceding 15 years reveals ongoing population declines, with overall recorded losses of 33.5%. Within the SPA network Hen Harrier populations have declined by a recorded 26.6% since 2005.”
This is a sad indictment of the way in which designations have failed, not just landowners, but the wildlife they were meant to be protecting. As salmon are to rivers, so hen harriers are to uplands. Both are indicator species, whose absence should ring alarm bells for the well-being of biodiversity generally.
Farmers have had issues with land designation which they say has made many holdings unsaleable. And if they cannot sell, they need to at least make a living. With farmers in every sector suffering, many landowners are looking at their options, but for the designated farmers these options are more limited. They have a right to be angry, but it would be wrong to blame the humble bird for human mistakes. According to Lusby the need for hen harrier protection is real, but its implementation to fate has been flawed: “The basis of designation is sound, but designation must be accompanied by appropriate management and engagement with landowners and stakeholders, which, until very recently, have been lacking.”
When top of the line predator species disappear, it reflects an unhealthy environment in which smaller, less noticeable, animals and plants are also suffering. The native Irish curlew was last year identified as a red-listed species, having been driven from too many of its favourite breeding sites by changes in land use. Along with the hen harrier, the curlew is adapted to live among the rough pastures of upland farms. Forestry plantations and changes in farming practice have had a devastating impact on both these species.
Afforestation in particular has impacted on them. As they grow, plantations become barriers to the movement of upland birds, reducing their feeding areas and disrupting their ability to successfully breed. So where you see upland forestry, you see what may once have been the hunting ground for a pair of dancing harriers.
Land improvements have another impact. By removing scrub and cover farmers, reduce the number of species able to survive on the land, thus reducing the food supply of apex predators like hen harriers. In addition, the introduction of early silage harvesting led to the loss of many nesting sites. Support schemes are intended to encourage older land use patterns of behaviour, preserving the rough and ready appearance of uplands for the benefit of all the animals that use them.
With so few extended areas of rough grazing and heath land left, by the time hen harrier designations were imposed it was necessary to include a broad sweep of the hen harriers' most suitable remaining areas. Compensation for loss in land values was possibly never realistic, but especially not when new incentives for forestry started pushing up land values.
One of the complaints of Jason Fitzgerald of IFDL is a promise made about new forestry allowances. With the current supports driving up eligible land prices in marginal areas to €5,500/acre, according to local estate agent Liam Mullins, it is no wonder that those with designated land are upset that their farms are making €1,500/acre, but again the issue is over-enthusiastic support for forestry, without consideration of its broader impacts.
Macra na Feirme has already expressed concern that afforestation grants are too attractive, and younger farmers are being priced out of the land market as a result. A recent Macra report had this to say:
“Assuming an average farm size of 32.5ha a farmer who converts to forestry could, on average, be
earning €16,575 from forestry premiums and €9,118 from the basic payment. With a total annual
income from forestry potentially reaching €25,693 or €790/ha, a young farmer is at a distinct disadvantage in their ability to persuade the land owner to rent the land to them instead of put it in
Macra wants to see a series of thresholds introduced that would reduce payments for afforestation of farmland, with increased support for agroforestry instead, wherein forested land is not taken out of farming.
New forestry in hen harrier areas is just unthinkable now anyhow. According to Lusby, “research has shown that Hen Harrier breeding success drops below a self-sustaining level when forest cover in the landscape is greater than 40%. At present, plantation forest covers 53% of the land area of the SPA network. Even in the absence of further land-use change, forest maturation over the next decade will result in a substantial decrease in areas of suitable habitat available for Hen Harrier.”
The drive towards forestry has impacts across a broad spectrum of areas, from ecology to climate mitigation, which is the reason for planting more trees in the first place. Lusby says “afforestation in Ireland is progressing at one of the fastest rates in Europe, with ambitious targets to increase forest cover to 18% by 2046. With the recent and rapid land use changes that come with afforestation there is the potential for significant consequences for the environment such as biodiversity, carbon emissions and water quality, and forest policy needs to ensure that there are no impacts on these as they promote the economic benefits.”
Preserving uplands should be more profitable than planting them with trees. This is because wetlands of all kinds, from marshes to bogs, heath and rough grazing, act as carbon sinks. They hold vast amounts of carbon which is released if they are drained. This was not known until relatively recently and it is highly likely that big support for their preservation is imminent. In addition, Ireland has the potential to become a net exporter of carbon credits due to its vast holdings of trapped carbon and its potential to trap more into the future.
Lusby warns against draining uplands for forestry on these grounds also:
“Forestry has the potential to play a role in the sequestering of carbon. However, this is not the case if habitats which are high natural carbon sinks are planted. When these habitats are drained and planted, it causes the release of greenhouse gases like CO2, and cancels out any positive effect the forest may have provided”.
Imagine the future, the tables turn and wet boggy land is valued for its carbon sequestration ability. It seems only logical and just. This would compensate the farmers who are currently under designations. For now there is only the new hen harrier scheme, which itself is the harrier's last hope for survival. John Lusby concedes that the situation has been difficult for designated farmers thus far, but he says that: “For management of these upland areas to be effective for conservation, they also need to deliver for farmers on the ground.”
However Lusby thinks that while there was a “gap period of uncertainty” for designated farmers, this situation has changed. He says there is no longer a significant difference between income from forestry and the income available through supported farming of uplands.
“Within Hen Harrier SPA’s farmers currently have available to them GLAS and GLAS+ in addition to the Areas of Natural Constraint payment and Basic Payment Scheme, which together are similar to grants available for planting land. In addition the LLAES specifically for landowners within the Hen Harrier SPA’s is currently being devised and will be rolled out in the coming months which will provide a further source of income. We now need to start seeing the benefits in terms of conservation of the significant funds allocated towards these incentives.”
We can only hope that carbon sequestration gets the financial backing it needs, to become a viable long-term support to farmers in these delicate upland systems. We want our farmers to survive and thrive, as we want our hen harriers to do the same, along with all the other creatures that rely on these habitats. Given that so many SPAs are in beautiful places it would be great to see them develop tourism initiatives under the locally led scheme, so those like myself who have never seen a harrier, could come to visit and maybe see a sky dance for themselves.