Pilot project aims to support a recovery in upland farming
Donie Anderson, who has signed up to the SUAS project, with other local sheep farmers Brian and Patsy Murphy Photos by Paddy Barrett

Pilot project aims to support a recovery in upland farming

A PILOT project in the Tallaght hills hopes to support a recovery in upland farming, which plays a vital role in managing habitats.

Sheep have been grazing on the commonage areas between Cunard and the feather beds for centuries, maintaining the landscape and helping to improve habitat quality for wildlife.

However, a decline in traditional hill farming is having an impact on habitats, bio-diversity and the agricultural value of uplands right across Dublin and Wicklow.

Declan Byrne is the SUAS (Sustainable Uplands Agri-environment Scheme) project manager, a programme of the Wicklow Uplands Council.

Speaking with The Echo, Declan said that the SUAS project aims to support farmers to graze sheep on the hills and to be part of a sustainable upland management plan by working together, and with statutory and environmental agencies.

He also stressed that the uplands look the way they do because of hill farming, which for generations has managed the land both for wildlife and recreational visitors.

“If we remove farming activity from these habitats, they will change,” Declan said.

“If we want to maintain habitats as they are, we have to maintain farming.”

Sheep grazing on the commonage areas

Alongside supporting bio-diversity and farming, better quality habitats also helps with climate change.

According to Declan these hills are a major source of carbon due to the presence of peat.

“There is a huge store of carbon in the hills,” Declan told The Echo.

“Habitats in good condition lock up carbon, when they are in bad condition or improperly managed they release carbon.”

One element of the diverse SUAS project is finding alternatives to the traditional practice of controlled burning of vegetation on upland grazing areas.

This week, a SUAS crew were working the commonage land just past Cunard Road upper cutting back heather.

Heather growth on grazing hills has traditionally being managed through small,  controlled fires permitted at specific times of the year.

“We’re demonstrating that there is an alternative to controlled burning and how practical it is,” Declan said.

“This is only one element of the overall management of the hills.

“Were also looking at re-introducing cattle on the hills and in the next week or two, will be doing some native tree planting in the gullies.”

The SUAS project is a short-term programme, which will run in the Cunard area until the end of 2022.

According to Declan, it is hoped that the new practices developed over the lifetime of the pilot project will be used by the Department of Agriculture to inform new farming schemes from 2023.

Local sheep farmer Donie Anderson has signed up to the SUAS project, and sees the benefit in the programme.

“I was up there this morning and could hear the grouse calling,” Donie said.

“[The SUAS crew] was cutting patches of heather and this supports a lot of different bio-diversity… as there’s short and high heather.

“If you take the grouse for example, young grouse need short heather to feed on but tall heather to nest and hide in.

“Grouse are there generations, as long as we are and the sheep… it’s all about working together.

“The sheep will also go to the area where there’s been cutting and start working on the heather around it.”

He added: “There is not as many people farming on the hill and it is becoming neglected in places.

“I think this project can be good for the environment, good for wildlife…and is sustaining local heritage and livelihoods.

“There’s an awful lot of learning through the project… and there are different incentives for farmers to keep sheep on the hills.”

There are 25 SUAS sites across Dublin and Wicklow, with land in Glassavulluan near Castlekelly also part of the pilot upland management plan.

For further details visit wicklowuplands.ie

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