Wildlife habitats such as hedgerows, field margins, ponds, wetlands, and woodlands are commonly found on Irish farms.

These habitats are vital to ecology, but they also provide important benefits (commonly referred to as ecosystem services) to agricultural systems, including nutrient cycling in soil, flood prevention, regulation of pests and diseases, pollination and carbon storage.

Research and policy agendas are focusing more on sustainable management of agricultural land.

Red clover growing in hedgerows and fields.
These policies are recognising the need to increase production (to cope with increasing food demands), but they also highlight that the environment and ecosystem services need not be compromised.

The Farm to Fork strategy and the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) identify the pressing need for effective methods for biodiversity conservation, as part of the development of sustainable production systems.

Grass-based farming systems in Ireland are well positioned in terms of the wildlife they support. It is estimated that natural and semi-natural habitats constitute more than 6% to 7% of the intensive grass-based farm area. This bodes well in relation to anticipated recommendations under the Agri-Food strategy, whereby all farms may be expected to retain a certain quantity of habitats.

The retention of existing habitats is vital, as they typically deliver greater ecological benefits compared with newly created habitats. Therefore, farmers should first aim to retain and optimise the ecological quality of existing farmland habitats, before establishing new biodiversity or carbon initiatives.

Buttercups, red clover, nettles and thistles in hedgerows.

While existing habitats should be protected from intensive agricultural management, some semi-natural habitats benefit from reduced farm management, eg light grazing of extensive grasslands prevents the area from scrubbing over. More frequently occurring habitats such as hedgerows also benefit from a reduction in management.

Revising cutting practices to generate a tall hedgerow structure, with flowering trees, provides multiple environmental benefits.

Avoiding fertiliser, slurry and herbicide application along field and watercourse margins is beneficial for biodiversity and water quality.

Where there is a lack of existing habitats on a farm, new measures can be designed (and targeted) to provide multiple benefits for biodiversity, water quality and carbon storage.

All farmers can help to protect the quantity and quality of wildlife habitats. Effective implementation of such measures can play an important role in the reversal of biodiversity decline and ensure the continued delivery of crucial eco-system services.

In addition, such approaches can offer significant marketing opportunities to Irish farmers and retailers in terms of capitalising on Ireland’s reputation for sustainable production systems.