I’m based just outside of Athy, in south Kildare. I grow a variety of crops on my farm – barley for feed and malt; wheat for feed and milling; oilseed rape and peas for canning (sometimes I also grow beans) and I grow oats – sometimes for milling and sometimes for feed. All of those crops can sometimes be grown for seed, as well.
I’m farming about 220ac in total. It’s a regenerative farm – it’s not organic, but we’re trying to work with our soils rather than against them.
This involves minimal soil disturbance, trying to maintain living plants in the soil as much of the time as we can and building the soil biology so that the soil has a role in the nutrition and the health of the crop.
This has been a family farm for quite a few generations – I took it over in the mid-80s from my father and I’ve built it up a bit since then. I have kids, but don’t have anybody lined up at the moment to take over someday!
A start in biodiversity
I got involved in a bumblebee monitoring scheme with the biodiversity data centre about five years ago. I’m not bragging about that, because I think I’m one of their worst recorders! But it did open my eyes to what they were doing. Collecting biodiversity data gives you a new angle on what’s going on around the farm. While I’m bad at it; it’s a very worthwhile thing to do – walking around your own farm once a month; just observing what’s there. It just kind of slows you down.
I met a friend through regenerative farming – she came over to have a look around [for pollinator activity] and I thought, “I don’t have much here in terms of bees – I think we’re probably wasting our time.” What she actually found, in terms of habitat and food for bees – as well as the number of bees already around – was really surprising to me.
That was an important moment. As farmers, we’re used to being told that we’re terrible and wreaking havoc on the environment – but most of us have more good stuff going on than we realise.
I think it’s often more productive to give people credit for what they have and allow them to build on that, rather than be constantly haranguing them. It’s a more positive way to deal with things.
This all led to our current EIP (European Innovation Partnership) pollinator project. I met Una Fitzpatrick at the biodiversity data centre. She was pulling together a small working group to get this project going, so I went to a couple of meetings. I was just very impressed by her; I thought, “This is a really focused, practical person who really knows her stuff.” I found her really inspiring.
The aim is to get a broad spectrum of farms, so every type of enterprise is involved
The pollinator project is only focused around Co Kildare – just for practical purposes, to keep it all in one area. There are 40 farms involved. The aim is to get a broad spectrum of farms, so every type of enterprise is involved and there’s a wide range of dispositions [attitudes to biodiversity] – there are farmers who are at the very cutting edge of regenerative systems, and then there are others who would say they’re not really interested in this kind of thing. And it’s really important, for the project, to see how it works on every type of farm.
Participants will record a range of actions they take over the next number of years, and at the end of the project they will be re-surveyed
We’re now into our third year of the project, but it’s really the second year in terms of on-the-ground activity. Last year, the biodiversity data centre team did baseline surveys on all 40 farms; these were very detailed surveys of pollinator activity and availability of habitats and food. Participants will record a range of actions they take over the next number of years, and at the end of the project they will be re-surveyed.
Data for the future
The impact of the actions taken will be accurately assessed – if you’ve increased your pollinator variety and activity, that’s evidence that those actions are worth supporting. Likewise, there may be actions that won’t work. Some things will likely have a neutral impact, some positive, and then some might cause inadvertent harm or have no impact.
I would hope this project will give the necessary data for the introduction of future schemes. Farmers are not stupid. With such a pivotal expected shift to come in agri-environmental measures – if you’re expected to be doing this kind of thing you want to be sure the extra effort is going to work.
I’m much more conscious of the hedgerows and the food and shelter available for pollinators
Pollinator activity is an excellent barometer of the overall health of our farm. Before I got involved in this, we had stopped using insecticides on the farm – the reasons were more practical than environmental, to be fair. Now, I’m much more conscious of the hedgerows and the food and shelter available for pollinators.
Year round food
If you have some late flowering shrubs or trees – and early flowering stuff like willow and hazel – that can be very important for the bees. Having a beautiful flowering cover crop isn’t much good if it’s only providing food for a portion of the year. A lot of solitary bees won’t travel further than a kilometre.
I’ve learned that the visible insect is just the tip of a whole load of organisms that goes down to the microscopic level – and they all depend on one another.
There are easier ways to make a living than farming and it’s so easy to beat yourself up about all the things that aren’t right. If you can see you’re actually improving what’s there? It’s hard to put your finger on it, but it feels like an intangible reward.