Subscriber OnlyFarming & Food

Farmers divided on impact of Nature Restoration Law

Two farmers explain the implications of the law for them. One feels it is more in keeping with nature and the other that it will cause bogs to swell up

The passage of the EU’s Nature Restoration Law on Tuesday has divided many in the farm community.

Despite the disappointed reaction of large farm organisations such as the Irish Farmers’ Association, the issues are more nuanced – and the fears and even hopes are more personal when speaking to farmers on the ground.

One farmer who was pleased that the law was passed was Clive Bright, a Sligo beef farmer and advocate of agroforestry where trees are integrated with livestock or crops.

“Despite being organic for 10 years and striving towards ecological goals, there still isn’t enough nature on my farm and I also see that in the broader landscape,” Mr Bright said.


“I think it’s about working with nature rather than trying to combat it all the time.”

Mr Bright farms more than 100 acres with his wife Shelley and two children near Ballymote and sells his home-reared beef directly to customers.

“I really feel like my role as a farmer is to create a livestock habitat so the cows are essentially prey animals of the landscape. It’s the same habitat that wild animals need,” he said.

“Trying to make a diverse and complex landscape enhances animal welfare, and everything gets easier without a doubt; my farm has become more profitable since farming this way.”

Others in the farm community are more fearful of the impact the law will have, particularly in regard to peatland rewetting.

Countries will be required to have restoration measures for drained peatlands on at least 30 per cent of peatlands with a quarter of this to be rewetted by 2030, 40 per cent by 2040 (one-third to be rewetted) and 50 per cent by 2050 (also one-third to be rewetted).

Ireland’s peatlands have often been described as our Amazon forest, with a unique ability to sequester huge amounts of carbon. For example, the Irish Peatland Council has previously outlined that the relatively small 75-acre Lodge Bog, in Co Kildare, would emit the equivalent of 66,000 cars a year if it was drained.

The Green Party has stressed that rewetting would be voluntary for farmers and landowners and an “emergency brake” was written into the text to suspend temporarily targets where they would severely impact food production.

While Mr Bright acknowledges the Nature Restoration Law is a “blunt tool”, he feels that the threat farmers feel is probably less than they perceive it might be. He feels there are hundreds of acres of peatland or poor land that are not being used or abandoned that would benefit from the Nature Restoration Law.

His optimism is not shared by dairy farmer Pat O’Brien, who milks 70 cows and farms 60 acres in the peat heartland of Offaly. He rents an additional 60 acres that back on to a Bord na Móna bog and fears the impact that current and future rewetting projects will have on land in the area.

“Bord na Móna are starting to rewet the land at the back of the land I rent at the moment and we’ve looked for reassurances we won’t be impacted but they’re not very forthcoming. We’ve contacted the Minister for Agriculture as well,” he said.

He says both are confident there won’t be any issues “but they seem reluctant to put it in writing”.

“Some 80-odd years ago when they started draining these bogs, the lands around them would have had springs or wet patches. When they were drained, all those springs dried up,” Mr O’Brien said.

“If rewetting happens, the bogs will swell and rise up, and when they become saturated in 10 and 20 years’ time, it will act like a water tower and all those underground springs and streams will rise up again.

“What we want is a guarantee that if that does happen then Bord na Móna would come as speedily as possible to fix it so that it can be farmed. We’re not looking for compensation.”

However, compensation or a new farmer-friendly scheme could be on the cards.

More than €3 billion was earmarked for nature restoration in the most recent budget but nothing specific has been outlined in terms of how farmers or the rural community will be compensated or incentivised to meet targets.

The Green Party Minister with responsibility for nature, Malcolm Noonan, has said this will be used to help fund plans to restore nature but no specifics have been provided to farmers yet.

When it comes to bog rewetting, Bord na Móna already has a project to rewet 33,000 hectares of peatland. However, overall the semi-State company owns just 1 per cent of peatland in the country with 69 per cent in private ownership.

If 50 per cent of peatlands in the country are to have restoration measures in place by 2050, then private landowners and farmers will have to be persuaded to come on board with the Government’s plans.

The Government has just two years to draft a plan to meet the targets of the Nature Restoration Law, satisfy national stakeholders’ concerns and gain approval from the European Commission.

However, the current Government may not be in place to execute that plan. Dairy farmer Pat O’Brien pointed out that all five of Fine Gael’s MEPs voted in favour of the law.

“The traditional farmer’s parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, just abandoned farmers since we dug them out of a hole in the 1990s. We were pushed to increase output and we did,” he said.

“Now we’re being blamed for all the wrongs in the world in terms of nature. If there was a corner of my field with nettles and briars in it 10 years ago, I would have been penalised and had payments deducted.

“Farmers will have noted that only two MEPs voted against the law and rethink who they can rely on.”

But while the farm community might carefully weigh up who they vote for in the upcoming local and European elections, not all the votes will necessarily be cast according to expectations.

For beef farmer Clive Bright, the new law remains a positive step.

“We’re never going to win if we keep battling against nature,” he said.

“Nature will always find a balance and if we can find a way to farm within that balance, then it all becomes a lot easier and the food becomes a lot better.”

  • See our new project Common Ground, Evolving Islands: Ireland & Britain
  • Sign up for push alerts and have the best news, analysis and comment delivered directly to your phone
  • Find The Irish Times on WhatsApp and stay up to date
  • Our In The News podcast is now published daily – Find the latest episode here