Farmers as stewards of the environment: a new trend in conservation practice?

Ireland’s landscape has been shaped for millennia by human activity, most notably farming. This has yielded some wonderful legacies – from the national network of hedgerows and stone walls, to biodiversity-rich pastures sustained by grazing livestock. 

Recent decades have seen this legacy tarnished, however, as many farmers adopted modern technologies – including heavy machinery and agrochemicals – in an understandable effort to produce food more efficiently and to improve their income. 

Back in the late 1990s farmers in the Burren – possibly Ireland’s richest landscape for wildlife and culture – began to realise that though they could only produce limited quantities of food, they were also in effect producing a huge array of public goods and ‘ecosystem services’ – such as biodiversity (habitats, pollinators), clean water and carbon sequestration - for which there should be a reward. While national agri-environment programmes such as Rural Environment Protection Scheme (REPS) sought to address this, they simply didn’t ‘fit’ the Burren and were considered very restrictive by farmers.

A limestone boulder perched atop the Burren's unique landscape.

A limestone boulder perched atop the Burren's unique landscape.

After several years of applied research, led by teams of academics and visionary local farm leaders, a new model for farming in the Burren was crafted through which Burren farmers could in effect be rewarded annually for their agricultural and environmental performance. 

The ‘Burren Life’ model of farming for conservation can best be described as a locally-targeted, farmer-led and results-based approach to enhancing the Burren’s farmed environment.  At its heart is a simple field-based system through which the environmental health of the land (soil, water, habitats etc) is estimated annually on a 1-10 scale, which in turn translates into an income for the farmer. High scores (9, 10) yield bonus payments to reward the exceptional management involved, while scores below 5 – equating to poor performance - yield no payment. 

Farmers must use their own experience, ingenuity and hard work if they want to deliver higher scores and payments but they tend to relish the freedom and incentive inherent in tackling this challenge. As farmers co-fund much of the work involved to generate higher scores, and as payment only issues on ‘delivery’ of environmental goods Burren Life can guarantee optimal ‘Value for Money’ for the taxpayer who funds the programme (through the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and the National Parks and Wildlife Service who sponsor Burren Life).

After 6 years of operation, Burren Life is proud to boast a measurable improvement in the environmental health of 50% of the protected land of the Burren for every one of those six years. It is now set to be extended across the entire Burren with an annual budget of €3-4m, a huge social and economic dividend to a peripheral rural area.

Ashoka Fellow Dr. Brendan Dunford gives HRH Prince Charles a tour of the Burren.

Ashoka Fellow Dr. Brendan Dunford gives HRH Prince Charles a tour of the Burren.

One of the many spin-off benefits of the project has been the number of farmers and conservationists – including HRH Prince Charles – who have visited the region to learn more about the Burren Life model. The impact of the Burren model has also led to the introduction of a new €70m measure in Ireland’s Rural Development Programme (2016-2020) to support locally led, results based programmes elsewhere in Ireland and has also fed into new research projects in the EU. The simple model has the capacity to be easily adapted to work on any field on any farm anywhere in the world.

The main lesson from the Burren Life story has been the appetite and ability of farmers to act as effective and impactful environmental stewards of their own land if they are given the trust, freedom, support and incentive to do so. Burren Life is a simple model which does just this.


This blogpost was written by Ashoka Fellow Dr. Brendan Dunford. Check out www.burrenlife.com for more information on Burren Life's conservation programmes.