Changes and challenges in land use within our Dargle catchment - a farmer's view

Updated: Mar 15

One of the areas our project team is working in to map the stocks and flows of services in Irish catchments is the Dargle area of Co Wicklow. It's an extremely varied catchment in terms of land use, roughly 10 per cent of which is agricultural use. Philip Maguire, a farmer in the Glencullen area of the Dargle, spoke with us to share some insights into how farming practices and land use have evolved in the catchment.

A herd of white sheep and a farmer on a hillside, overlooking a city and coastal view, with dark clouds above
Rural & urban mix...the Co Wicklow farmer and his herd take in an ocean view. Pic: Philip Maguire

Q. How would you describe the variations in land use in the Dargle catchment over the years?

Philip: 'Land-use patterns change. What we use the land for, and how we do it, evolves over time. Without question, human interaction with the land has an impact, whether we use the land to live (reside), to work, to recreate or other uses.

If we were to look back 150 years, for example, land use and methods were quite different in the Dargle catchment area than today. The land ownership regime was dramatically different - a landlord/tenant system - and much of the land in the Dargle catchment area was contained within lived-in estates, such as Powerscourt and Charleville of Enniskerry, Fitzsimons of Glencullen and Kilruddery of Bray.

Within these estates were relatively large farms, with a strong local workforce to harvest the crops or tend to the animals. Outside the estate walls lived tenants, typically with a few acres (although sizes varied greatly) of land that came with the house, and, within these few acres, the food needs for the house were met and a cow or two was kept for milk and butter. Larger tenant farms had cattle, sheep, and crops of wheat and barley.

Vast areas of the mountains were used for both grazing (sheep and goats) and for recreation ie for grouse shooting, and game keepers were assigned to look after and manage the heather for the grouse. In Glencullen, stone quarries were found throughout the side of the hills, providing cut granite to Dublin City for some of the larger buildings, pavements, churches etc. In subsequent years, after the Land Commission divided the land and allocated it to the tenants, some mountain land ended up in State ownership and was planted as commercial forestry, now owned and managed by Coillte. In the 1940s and subsequent decades, many locals took to the hill tops, to the bogs, to harvest turf for fuel to heat their homes.

The last 70 years have seen huge changes, however, as since WWII, Europe recognised potential food shortages as a huge concern. This was the primary reason behind the common European market which Ireland joined in 1973. This was the start of farming under the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which encourages increased output and yields per acre. More land was reclaimed and brought into production. Farming adapted to new technologies and innovations such as artificial fertilisers, sprays, improved animal breeding and animal housing. Farmers in this area generally specialised in one or two enterprises, mostly cattle (suckler herds) and sheep, as the topography of the area lends itself best to these enterprises. Dairy farms at the foothills were too small relative to other dairy farms to remain viable. Some grain production continues on the floor of the Glencree Valley and at lower levels near the coast. As a result of the farming evolution to date, the overwhelming farming practice seen here today is sheep and cattle.

Q. What are the primary challenges faced at farm level these days and how do they affect how the land is used?

With all the agricultural innovations over the last century pushing up production, it would be reasonable to expect that farms in the area are extremely profitable. However the reality is somewhat different. The problem is, for various reasons, farm gate prices of food haven’t risen. In an attempt to maintain family farm incomes, the CAP addresses this somewhat by issuing direct payments, now called the Basic Payment Scheme (BPS), per hectare. However, costs have escalated. The costs and standard of living has risen far beyond what most farms can afford. Wages outside of farming have increased with inflation and it’s therefore a much more attractive option for many. Effectively, the vast majority of farms in the Dargle area are now part-time, and I could probably count on one hand the number of farms in the area that would be deemed to be full-time.

Farmers will often claim they don’t make money or the farm doesn’t pay. Most of us do make some money and farming can be profitable (including BPS and other schemes) but the returns for the effort, for the commitment, for the risks (health and safety) we sometimes put ourselves under, meeting loan repayments and other financial obligations mean it is difficult to be rewarded adequately. No other sectors would come close to farming in terms of physical labour and hours worked per week. And yet, a lot of us do it, because it’s not just a job, it’s our life, it’s our heritage and it’s what we know best, having been reared to it on the family farm as children. And, on the flip side, it must be said, it can be rewarding in other ways - it’s nice to see the family farm continue, you’re in the fresh air, you can manage your own time, seasonal work etc.

In my case, my father worked the family farm from c. 1950 to 2000. He worked hard, as did my mother who was a housewife who also helped out with farm work if needed, and they generally had one man employed, while rearing and educating four children. Now, and in the last 20 years since I took over, livestock numbers haven’t changed significantly and the area farmed is larger, yet I do it all on my own. I made investments in the animal housing for the winter which means it’s less labour intensive (and environmentally compliant) - I’m still working to pay off those loans. There is no way the farm in itself would pay to rear my family of three children on its own, never mind paying for a farm-help. My wife is a school teacher, so she earns substantially more than I do, and together we are doing okay. But this highlights where farming is at, in terms of income for farmers.

A white and brown calf with a yellow ear tag faces the camera, green fields and Sugarloaf mountain peak behind
Curious cattle... Hereford calf in Glencullen with a view towards Sugar Loaf mountain. Pic: Philip Maguire

Increasingly, there are environmental, animal health, hygiene, traceability and paperwork standards that need to be met. Animal manure storage in farmyards needs to be adequate as no organic manures can be spread on lands in certain months of the winter. All these standards incur costs and investment, especially with cattle. TB is prevalent in the wildlife of the valleys, and cattle herds are prone to outbreaks, forcing these animals to be slaughtered. As a result, very few cattle are now found in the entire area, particularly so in the Glencree valley. (There are still a few farms with cattle in Glencullen.)

Sheep farming is more prevalent throughout the farmland area - though sheep grazing on the open hills is practiced way less now, as the man-power and time it takes for herding is not there. Losses of sheep (for various reasons) on the hills are another factor. Relative to other parts of Leinster and Munster, this area as a whole is farmed significantly less intensively than other parts. Sheep and cattle require less inputs than other farm enterprises.

Artificial fertiliser is used on most farms but I would estimate that mostly one application (or maybe two on meadows) is applied on grassland, along with the organic manure produced during housing in the winter months. Baled silage wrapped in black plastic is the most common form of fodder saved in the summer on these farms. Weeds are generally mechanically topped, instead of sprayed, but that’s not to say that spray (herbicide) wouldn’t be applied to fields where infestation of weeds is significant. The cost alone of fertilisers and sprays is probably a factor limiting their use. The tillage fields would likely receive more chemical treatment in order to produce a worthwhile crop.

While most of the land is farmed in the manner described above, other significant land uses are worth noting. Equestrian holdings, in the form of riding schools, stud farms or horse liveries are widespread so a large portion of the farmland is now dedicated to horses.

Forestry is significant too. There are large areas of conifer plantations, mostly found on the less productive north-facing slopes of the two valleys. While most of this is Coillte-owned, private forests exist, some planted in the mid-1990s when new EU grants were introduced to encourage farmers to diversify to trees. Some of the Coillte forests in the Dublin mountains that are heavily visited by recreational users are no longer being managed for commercial forestry but are receiving a ‘makeover’ to increase biodiversity and enhance the recreational experience for the user. Other areas currently managed for nature conservation are the National Parks & Wildlife Service-owned lands, including the open hills (part of Wicklow Mountains National Park and designated Special Areas of Conservation like Knocksink Woods in Enniskerry).

Hillwalking has become a major activity in some areas, and the Wicklow Way and Dublin Mountain Way traverse the catchment in different directions. Sometimes walkers bring dogs to the mountains which can cause conflict with sheep farmers if the dogs are allowed to stray into sheep grazing areas.

Other forms of recreation are the many golf courses, mountain bike parks, zip-lines and estates such as Powerscourt and Kilruddery. Recreation is without doubt increasing throughout this area but being on the edge of Dublin City, that's probably not surprising.

Q. How do global issues and environmental risks factor into agricultural economics from the farming point of view - and how do you think they should be addressed?

Farming always has its challenges but in recent times, for me at least (and I’m sure it’s the same for a lot of livestock farmers) the challenges seem to be multiplying year on year. There are so many economic and environmental threats on the industry which are likely to impact on the way we farm and the income we can derive from it.

From an economic perspective, huge uncertainty exists over Brexit, and it could have an immediate impact on livestock prices. Cattle prices are predicated to fall, as our largest and most valuable UK market leaves the EU. Sheep prices may rise, though Brexit (deal or no deal) has without doubt created a huge amount of uncertainty within the industry.

Meanwhile, trade deals between world trading blocs have been agreed, allowing meat products from one part of the world to another. The EU seems to be happy to import cheaper South American beef into Europe (with lower standards) in exchange for other EU goods and services. The CAP budget is likely to be reduced as other pressing issues such as security and immigration draw from the overall EU budget.

Consumption of meat is also a concern, as more developed nations see a rise in vegetarianism and veganism. Flexitarianism promotes cutting out meat products from your diet down to a minimum. While traditionally most people gave up eating meat for animal welfare reasons, there is an increasing trend to reduce meat consumption on the basis that farmed livestock are deemed to contribute significantly to climate change.

While farmers have been very successful at producing food, the environmental consequence has had an impact on our environment. Water quality in many parts of the country is deteriorating and farming often gets the blame, although contamination is more likely coming from a number of sources. Nitrates and phosphates are causing nutrient enrichment, exceeding safe drinking water limits in places, and also impacting on our natural ecosystems and aquatic habitats.

A few sheep in a green field landscape, hills, beyond and a soft pastel sky
Farmer's eye view... Sheep graze in the scenic landscape within Wicklow's Dargle catchment. Pic: Philip Maguire

Water bodies found to contain high amounts of nitrates tend to come from intensive agricultural areas of mineral soils, mostly in the south-east and phosphate-rich waters tend to be found in the heavier poorly drained soils of the midlands. (I don’t have any information on the water quality in the Dargle catchment, but maps I've seen showing areas of high nitrates and phosphates in Irish watercourses do not suggest this is a particular problem in North East Wicklow.)

Of wider concern is climate change. Most countries have set targets to meet to reduce greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming. The EU has set targets for itself, yet despite this, they seem content and intent to import food from areas outside the EU with far less environmental standards, such as South America, where thousands of acres of rainforest is clear-felled to make way for agriculture.

In an Irish context, agriculture contributes 34% of greenhouse gas emissions, versus 24% globally - traditionally we have a smaller industrial base than most countries, so it’s inevitable that our largest industry contributes most. Therefore, there is a lot of the focus in this country on farming. It must be pointed out that almost all the focus to date is on emissions rather than sequestration - it’s a two-way process.

It is generally agreed amongst farming bodies that agriculture needs to do its bit (particularly on emissions) and efforts are being made in this regard. Low-emission slurry spreading, protected urea fertiliser, improved breeding all can and will contribute. Stabilising the national herd numbers is key, and the dairy industry, in particular, seems to be content to drive on regardless. Some argue that the less-profitable suckler herd should be cut to make way for the dairy farmer, which is an option, but the suckler farms are generally way less intensive. And does Ireland really want to sacrifice its world-renowned beef industry?

If Ireland is serious about tackling climate change, it needs to engage the farming community. Farmers have a huge resource in terms of land, and if the land is managed with the environment in mind, great strides into sequestration and biodiversity could be achieved. Well-funded schemes could incentivise farmers to undertake measures to improve sequestration, biodiversity and water quality.

Farmers can see environmental requirements being ramped up in the new CAP. Both compulsory minimum requirements and voluntary schemes are coming down the line. Even if new schemes are introduced, farmers can be reluctant to take part. There is nothing more rewarding than selling your produce and getting a return from the marketplace. While markets for commodities can fluctuate, there is a product and there is a price. In contrast, an EU or national scheme can close or run out of funds. Schemes are always up for inspection, farmers fear being at the mercy of the inspector. That said, well-administered schemes can and should contribute positively to both farmer and environment.

Much more scientific work needs to be undertaken in terms of sequestration. It is not clear yet how much carbon is sequestered on Irish farms, it is still unknown the exact quantities our hedgerows, our grasslands, our soils and our habitats are sequestrating. Is it possible that many farms are already carbon neutral? It is also quite likely that a new commodity of carbon credits may emerge, as corporate Ireland (and the corporate world at large) seek to off-set their own emissions. Is there an opportunity for farmers to derive an income from the carbon credit marketplace?

The bottom line is that farmers traditionally produce food, food which is needed to feed the human population. In Ireland, our natural climate is ideal for grass growth and we can produce meat and milk at lower carbon emissions than many other parts of the world. Improvements need to be made to ensure the quality of our water, while opportunities should be developed for farmers to pro-actively enhance biodiversity, reduce emissions and increase sequestration within their land.'

Snow-covered fields dotted by dark green trees and hedges
The farm in winter... snowfall on the hills of the Glencullen valley. Pic by Philip Maguire