Green wisdom

The locality of Annaghdown, on the eastern shore of Lough Corrib, has long had the feeling of a hideaway

The locality of Annaghdown, on the eastern shore of Lough Corrib, has long had the feeling of a hideaway. Even as its twisty lanes fill up with the homes of Galway commuters, a leafy tranquillity persists between the lap of waves at the tumbled limestone shore and the traffic swishing south to the city on the N84.

In the 1940s, Annaghdown must have seemed even more of a community away on its own. Many of its small farms were under 30 acres and close to the subsistence which today would be called self-sufficiency. On the average farm, about half the land was pasture and rough grazing, about a quarter grew crops and the rest of it hay.

This mixed farming, integrating crops and livestock, was quite typical of Irish agriculture at the time. In 1940 the "compulsory tillage" of wartime was beginning to bite, a scarcity of imported fertilisers made farmyard manure essential everywhere.

The Annaghdown farms, snug among stone-walled fields and hedgerows, were a model of the "frugal comfort" prized by de Valera. They kept Shorthorn and Hereford cattle, Galway ewes, Clydesdale and Irish draught horses, Large White and Landrace pigs, Rhode Island and four other breeds of hens and assorted ducks, geese and turkeys. The crops were oats, wheat, barley, potatoes, mangold and turnips, and sugar beet for the factory in Tuam.


It was traditional farming, of the kind most ecologists believe gave the greatest chance to nature's own diversity, and it was set among a remarkable range of habitats, including callows, turloughs, woodland and limestone scrub. Compare one of the 1940s farms to the big, intensive ryegrass ranches of most of Ireland today, and the roster of birds, mammals, plants and insects takes a modern nosedive.

This was what moved Dr Tina Aughney and Dr Mike Gormley, of NUI Galway's Environmental Science Unit, to sit down with 30 Annaghdown farmers, all over 65, and, in long, one-to-one interviews, document the kind of farming that had no tractors, silage-pits or bags of 10-10-20. These older farmers, they saw, had a great wealth of knowledge of traditional farming systems that could be used in the management of nature conservation today.

They had especially in mind the Rural Environment Protection Scheme (REPS), which has safeguarding wildlife habitats as one of its main aims. Many of the recommendations used by REPS planners have been based on farming practices in Britain, and Aughney and Gormley are not happy that they actually work to benefit the flora and fauna in Ireland. Their research at Annaghdown offers, for example, traditional stocking densities and grazing seasons to use in managing particular habitats in Natural Heritage Areas and Special Areas of Conservation as well as in working out REPS plans with farmers.

The most attractive booklet that packages this study has been funded by the Heritage Council, and this agency is also helping to mount the 7th European Forum on Nature Conservation and Pastoralism, to be held in Ennistymon, Co Clare, on June 17th - 21st. This will use the Burren as its workshop to study how distinctive farming systems, important to nature conservation, respond to pressure from markets and agricultural policies.

Here again there is an "ideal" past, from the ecological point of view, in which the farming system and natural diversity were in balance. In a briefing for the Forum's delegates, the Heritage Council's Dr Liam Lysaght spells out how 30 years of CAP tipped the scales against nature.

Traditionally, the Burren offered a rather curious counterpart to the "transhumance" pastures of Europe: its farmers took cattle up to the heights in winter, rather than summer. Dry-hoofed and healthy on the limestone, they cropped the natural upland pastures and checked the spread of hazel, all of which was also good for the diversity of the Burren's extraordinary flora. The cattle were Shorthorns, a hardy, dual-purpose breed ideally suited to the rocky grasslands. They recycled nutrients in their dung and artificial fertilisers were unknown. Stocking densities were matched to the natural carrying capacity of the land: it was a pastoral farming that used, rather than forced, the natural growth cycle of the region.

Under CAP, cattle numbers rocketed, almost doubling in 30 years and their breeds changed. Friesians, Herefords, Charollais and the rest are not nearly as well suited to foraging on coarse upland grasses, but still the upland grazing season was extended and stocking levels increased, often with supplementary winter feeding. Alternatively, upland pastures have been abandoned and the cattle housed in winter. Neither extreme is good for the Burren's diversity.

At the margins of the Burren's national park, large areas of limestone pavement have been bulldozed, topsoiled and reseeded with ryegrass: a terrain changed forever. High-input methods are importing nutrients, such as fertilisers and winter concentrates, that find their way into the Burren's background levels. And the bigger, more intensive farmers don't volunteer for REPS.

The June Forum is concerned with describing specific systems of pastoral farming and shaping the incentives that will manage their environmental impact. Delegates are planning to meet farmers on their land, study their methods, talk about their milk quotas. They want to bring farmers together with ecologists and policy-makers to "produce a strategy for practical actions" beyond the CAP reforms.

That is, of course, if they can get past the Burren's "No Trespassing" signs.

Farm Habitats in Annaghdown, County Galway: Management Practices in the 1940s is published by the Environmental Science Unit, National University of Ireland, Galway.

Michael Viney

Michael Viney

The late Michael Viney was an Times contributor, broadcaster, film-maker and natural-history author