Perhaps Fine Gael will need to organise an Irish Farmers' Association (IFA) protest to every public meeting on agriculture and rural affairs it holds.

Because on Thursday evening - for the second time in less than two weeks - I was sitting in a packed hall at a meeting chaired by Eddie Downey, where most of the people present had been protesting outside beforehand.

There is no doubt that the protests have swelled the audiences at the meetings the IFA has targeted.

Farmers have climbed down off their tractors and come into the meetings to directly present their message to the people present, particularly the MEP present in this case.

Sean Kelly was in Askamore Hall on Thursday night, just as Colm Markey had been at the meeting in Athy I reported from for last week’s paper (2 March).

Both meetings were conducted in good order and good humour. The chair was central to this. Eddie Downey, as everyone knows, resigned as president of the IFA almost seven and a half years ago, in the middle of the controversy around the level of executive pay and presidential remuneration.


But he has not let that define him, nor has he let it sour him. He's still the same genial and good-natured man, intense and yet easygoing, and it makes him a superb chair.

He's able to ensure an atmosphere of decency and respect. Not allowing the hard questions to be ducked, but often taking the hard edge off them with a mischievous quip. And always a glint in his eye, without ever pretending that the reason we are gathered is not extremely serious and important.

Because it is serious and important. We're talking about the future of food production, land use and the footprint both leave on the environment. Farmers - as food producers and the custodians of the land - are central to all that.

Initially, we heard from two local women invited by the convenor of the meeting, local election candidate Edel Gahan.

Catherine Kinsella founded Saltrock Dairy, which is selling pasteurised non-homogenised milk through direct local sales. She was recently featured in Irish Country Living.

Meanwhile, Una Sinnott, an Irish Farmers Journal intern only a few years ago, is combining her Walsh scholarship on factors influencing on-farm uptake of carbon reduction with her own start-up, Nutorious Nutrition, which produces bars, bites, confectionary and granola, all nut-based.

It was great, on the eve of International Women’s Day, to have two such inspirational farming entrepreneurs address the room.

The big policy issues don’t change these days when it comes to farmers meetings. Nitrates was discussed at the outset by Tim Lombard, who, as well as being Fine Gael’s agriculture spokesperson in the Seanad, is a dairy farmer from outside Kinsale - derogation central. He also spoke passionately about TB, having just come out of restriction.

For context, Askamore is in north Wexford, close to the Wicklow border, and is on the edge of the biggest TB blackspot in the country. Lombard told me afterwards that a number of farmers spoke to him about their personal experiences with TB and of the need to really get serious about tackling what they believe to be the root cause in their area - wild deer.

Sean Kelly was pressed by Wicklow IFA chair Tom Byrne on the fact that he had voted in favour of the Nature Restoration Law last week. Kelly didn't really go into too much detail on that.

He defended his overall record, but I think he read the room and sensed that the Nature Restoration Law was not really of much interest to most of the farmers in the room. It doesn't affect them and, let's be honest, we really focus on the things that personally affect us.

Hedge trimming extension

To that end, there were a group of contractor hedge trimmers in the room who had also held a protest before and whom I understand had a meeting with Kelly earlier in the day. These people are looking at the loss of their livelihoods.

For the second year, they have failed to get out on most of the land they are contracted to trim. For the second successive year, it's been wet since October. In fact, it was wet for much of September too and it was hard to get out on land.

Farmers have been reluctant to let their hedge-cutting contractors out on their land, be it grass or stubble, waiting for a better time that never came.

Now we're in March and the restrictions are back in place and they must put down their hedge trimmers until next September.

What they're looking for is an extension, particularly in August, but also perhaps in March. They were given encouragement by one local councillor, according to my local newspaper, who said that bird nesting now doesn't take place until late March.

I don't know where he got this information from, but I have to say the evidence that I extracted from various sources since Thursday evening will contradict that.

It seems that bird nesting is taking place not later than it used to, but earlier because of our warmer, wetter winters, which see the land saturated and unable to take tractors and hedge trimmers. And it's unlikely that there's any evidence to the contrary.

I am absolutely no expert on bird nesting, but the arguments feel a little like the arguments against calendar farming, which were made again on Thursday night.

And, again, all the science I have read falls in favour of a closed period for slurry. Farmers, understandably, don’t like that message, particularly when winters seem so mild.

Frost zone

I haven’t been in Askamore hall in decades, but I was there regularly in the 1980s - Macra nights, be it debates or volleyball, or maybe a 21st.

One thing was for sure, I never went there when there was an R in the month without de-icer. Askamore hall looks down on Carnew (geographically, the locals have nothing but the height of respect for each other, I’m sure).

It is, as Tim Lombard declared, “high ground”. And there always seemed to be frost up there on those 1980s nights.

There was frost everywhere. My final job in the evenings was to pull a plastic silage cover up on to the sugarbeet clamp. When the sun burned the frost off the next day, we’d pull it down again, to prevent the beet from sweating. Then they came up with breathable covers, which could be left on permanently. That was one job I didn’t miss.

You’d never see a cover on beet now - unless it’s ensiled. We don’t get much frosts most winters. The climate has definitely changed, with milder and wetter winters the reality.

Go out early in the morning, walk along the hedgerows and see the level of bird activity for yourself

And, as a result, birds are nesting earlier than before, according to Birdwatch Ireland. This is line with research from the US, which shows many species nesting almost a month earlier.

Curator of birds at the Field Museum and the study’s lead author John Bates said: “What we can see is clearly pointing in the direction that climate change is having a significant effect on the behaviour of birds.”

I would suggest that any farmer with untrimmed hedgerows follow the advice Birdwatch Ireland gave to me when I contacted them on Friday.

“Go out early in the morning, walk along the hedgerows and see the level of bird activity for yourself.”

I did this on Friday morning. The birdsong began before dawn and was so vibrant I opened the kitchen window to listen as I ate my breakfast. And as I wandered around some fields, the level of activity was obvious and frankly heartening.

Is the news any better for August? Birdwatch Ireland would highlight that many hedgerow species nest well into August. These include amber-listed species of conservation concern such as the greenfinch and linnet.

They say the data indicates that the red-listed yellowhammer continues to nest into September and would actually like those areas where yellowhammers are present to hold off on hedge-trimming until mid-September, if possible.

Working with farmers

Some people would like to portray Birdwatch Ireland as anti-farming. That has not been my experience - I find them anxious to work with farmers to ensure the preservation of our bird population.

The reality is that if we want to move the hedge-trimming window, strong arguments with a scientific basis will need to be put forward.

I absolutely acknowledge the hardship of farmers and particularly hedge trimmers, who have been unable to trim in either of the last two winters, but that does not mean we can overturn restrictions that are in place for important reasons.

That’s all the more reason why we need politicians to be responsible as we move toward the local, European and general elections.

Telling farmers they are right to call for a reduction in, or an end to, calendar farming might be popular, but I find it hard to accept that it is responsible. And telling farmers that birds don’t nest in Irish hedgerows in March needs substantiation or withdrawal.

Fine Gael Senator Tim Lombard knew he was in tillage country on Thursday night. That didn’t stop him, in the midst of his overview of the nitrates derogation and the learnings from the dairy-dominated Timoleague catchment near him, from referring to the real challenges minimising leaching of nitrates from tillage ground.

He spoke of the good news from Timoleague from 2014 to 2022, even as the catchment saw an increase in dairy cow numbers. I fear the news from 2023 will not be so good.


None of this should lead to pessimism from farmers. Eddie Downey rightly said near the outset of the meeting that farming is the one sector that looks like it might reach its 2030 emissions reduction target.

Sean Kelly spoke of Ursula von der Leyen at last listening to farmers and highlighted the importance of the make-up of the next European Parliament and European Commission.

He also shared his view that a Mercosur trade deal is as far away as ever it was, as the EU is looking for some measure of equivalence between imported food’s footprint and that required of food produced within the EU.

IFA grain vice-chair John Murphy said the food prices are ultimately the leading pressure on farmers and I entirely agree with him on that. The big problem for Ireland is that as we export 90% of our meat and dairy produce, we have no control over market prices.

An EU-wide recognition of this truth is vital if we are going to progress that issue in a way that reconstructs food pricing to reflect the cost of food.

Farmers can’t save birds and rivers if they are an endangered species themselves.

Footnote: Concerns are escalating that fireblight, a bacterial disease that threatens whitethorn (so endemic in our hedgerows), is finding its way around the country. ACRES hedgerow planting requirements must take native whitethorn plant availability into account or we could have another ash dieback on our hands. Importation of disease to an island is an avoidable environmental outcome.