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Burren environmental farming-scheme changes spark resignations by co-founders – The Irish Times

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The success of a unique environmental program involving hundreds of farmers around the Burren could be undermined by the introduction of a new and expanded scheme under reforms of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (Cap), according to one of its founders.

The Burren Programme, which involves more than 330 farmers in Co Clare, has received recognition at the European level as a conservation project promoting sustainable agricultural management.

However, Dr. Brendan Dunford and co-founder Sharon Parr have resigned from it due to concerns about the environmental integrity of the replacement scheme which they fear could lead to the decline of the Burren landscape.

Work undertaken as part of the program, which offers farmers more freedom regarding how they manage their land and advice where needed, includes the restoration of damaged habitats, scrub control, wall repairs, protecting water supplies and offering access to the land.

Fields covered under the scheme are graded under a “habitat health” checklist, with farmers who receive higher scores entitled to larger payments.

After 13 years in operation, the program is to change from January 1st. Farmers will have to transfer to the Agri-Climate Rural Environment Scheme, known as Acres Burren Aran CP, covering a territory from the Aran Islands to east Galway. It is feared that this will also lead to a reduction in incentives for conservation measures, with the average payment dropping from €9,000 to €7,000.

Dr. Dunford said the program’s results-based payments and significant local support, backed by “a lot of ambition”, ensured its environmental success, whereas the new scheme risks eroding its simple, fair and effective elements.

“It is not about the money,” he said. “It shows farmers can deliver for the environment if they are supported.”

At a time of a national biodiversity crisis, he said, the new program lacked flexibility and was not availing of opportunities under the new Cap. He said he was amazed by the strong response of participating farmers, who were upset by changes to a scheme they had ownership of.

“We welcome ambition and scaling but do regret the environmental integrity is diminished; certainly in the Burren,” Dr. Dunford said.

Burren IFA member Michael Davoren — another co-founder of the program — told the Clare Champion that “this is an unholy mess and it’s simply unthinkable that something that is the toast of Europe and a template for countless other projects should be destroyed”.

He added: “The Taoiseach has given commitments on biodiversity and the truth is that without the dedicated programme, the Burren will revert to a hazel forest in 20 years. We have been keeping it at bay for two decades. It’s hard work, but it’s viable with funding.”

IFA rural development chairman Michael Biggins said the resignations “raise serious questions about the credibility” of the Acres scheme.

“It’s incredible that a project, which is used as a template for numerous others across the EU, is forced to reduce its environmental standard. The Minister needs to step up and ensure that no farmer suffers a loss in income due to the design of the new Acres scheme.”

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Minister for Agriculture Charlie McConalogue and Minister of State Pippa Hackett met local farmers including Dr. Dunford about the issue this week. In a statement, they said they recognized the “excellent work carried out by the Burren Program — by farmers, advisers and the Burren team themselves — with the consequent benefit for the environment and community in Co Clare”.

“It is important to offer that opportunity to a far greater number of farmers so that a much larger land area is scored, with the ultimate goal of achieving better outcomes for biodiversity, climate and water quality,” Mr McConalogue said.

Ms Hackett said: “Our aim with Acres is to upscale our environmental ambition significantly; 1,300 farmers in the Burren-Aran region will be able to participate, which is an increase of over 300 per cent.”

Both Ministers welcomed a significant increase in environmental monitoring and assessment in the region, adding that they recognized the importance of ensuring farmers with extensive areas of high-environmental quality lands are incentivized to continue to provide a high level of environmental benefit.

They said department officials have been working closely with the Burren team to develop a bespoke bonus payment structure to achieve this aim, and reward such farmers to maintain their land at a high environmental level, “thereby preventing backsliding or environmental decline”.

Dr. Dunford told The Irish Times that while it was a good meeting with the Ministers, his concerns about weakening the environmental elements of the Burren Program remained.

However, he urged farmers to apply for the scheme despite his concerns as “there is no other option”.

He acknowledged the benefits of expanding but said “we don’t want to have scale if we’re going to lose integrity”.

Farmers’ have proposed that the Burren landscape be classified as an “exceptional circumstance” given “the unique extent and quality of the habitats and archeology present”. Such a measure is allowable under the Cap.

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