Ireland's Wild Atlantic Nature has won the 2024 Natura 2000 award in the category “working together for nature”.

The award highlights projects that demonstrate excellence in nature conservation and sustainable land use and is the first Irish project to win such an award.

Involving over 820 farmers across 63,000ha of Natura 2000 land, the project was led by the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) and the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage and funded by the EU LIFE programme.

The results-based agri-environmental payment scheme (RBPS) was implemented in 2021-2022, and was a pilot initiative aimed to deliver improved ecosystem services.

The RBPS links farmers’ agri-environment payments to the ecological condition of their land through a scorecard-based approach that assesses different habitat types, and captures the level of environmental services provided. As part of the scheme, over €3m in direct payments was awarded to farmers.

Paving the way for ACRES

This pilot scheme paved the way for the development of the Agri-Climate Rural Environmental Scheme Cooperation Project (ACRES CP), which now has almost 20,000 farmers participating and covers an area of 1,160,000ha with a budget of €750m.

Speaking at the awards in Brussels, project manager Derek McLoughlin said: “We are delighted to receive this award on behalf of everyone involved in the project. We have built on the success of other agri-environment projects such as the Burren Programme, and Hen Harrier and Pearl Mussel Project EIPs, and brought their learnings to new areas.

"None of this would be possible without the support and engagement of farmers. Our experiences working with farmers have been extremely positive, and shows that if the right structures are in place, farmers can and will deliver for nature.”

“The NPWS recognises the primary role of landowners to manage the land in a sustainable way and to deliver the ecosystem goods and services that the public want and need,” Niall Ó Donnchú, director general of the NPWS said.

“The success here tonight is down to the farmer and landowner participation and to the team involved, led by Derek McLoughlin. I would like to congratulate all involved. This is a fantastic testament to the power of partnership, collaboration and engagement.”

Minister of State for Nature and Heritage, Malcolm Noonan congratulated the Wild Atlantic Nature LIFE IP team for their impressive win, and said: “This award not only recognises the team’s hard work and dedication, but also celebrates the role of farmers in tirelessly managing and protecting Ireland’s Natura 2000 network. Nearly 100 projects vied for five awards and having the European judging panel validate the commitment and results of the Wild Atlantic Nature LIFE project is very special.”