The Sustainable Uplands Agri-Environment Scheme (SUAS), which was funded under the European Innovation Partnership, ran from 2018 to 2022.

Its aim was to develop practical solutions to address complex agricultural, environmental and socio-economic issues associated with upland farming in the Wicklow/Dublin uplands.

The project utilised a bottom up approach, which placed farmers at the centre of solutions. This approach was key in delivering progress and overcoming barriers which often existed in commonage groups.

The learnings from the project were delivered by its project manager Declan Byrne at the recent Teagasc Hill Sheep Conference held in Glendalough, Co Wicklow and are summarised in this article.

Starting point

Declan started out by explaining that the EU habitats directive requires that Annex I (peatland and heathlands) habitats are maintained in favorable condition.

The challenge in achieving this goal is that the areas concerned are often open areas, which are controlled by numerous individuals.

He used the example of an area of 10,500ha between the Wicklow Gap Road and the Sally Gap Road that has not one fence where sheep can roam over, and is split into over 40 different LPIS numbers and a mixture of ownership.

The experience of dealing with commonage farmers as individuals for more than 20 years was not working, with habitat quality deteriorating.

“Logic would tell you that if you have a commonage with 10 farmers on it, in order to achieve anything on that, you have to talk to all 10 of them and bring them along together”.


Commonage groups were set up and a constitution document was developed. Declan points out that some may think this was overkill and too much hassle, but this clearly lays out the rules for everyone to follow, and also helped to overcome any previous conflict between members.

“We went in there [to group meetings] with one purpose only: to talk about the hills and what the issues were, all the private issues were parked outside the door”.

The group structure also made it easier to have difficult conversations and discuss challenging topics. The process was rubberstamped in an exit survey, which highlighted that the majority of farmers see they have a role in commonage management plans and agri-environment schemes.


The second area focused on was education. A number of key questions were asked in this area including; what do we want in our uplands?, what should they look like?, what management is required and how is this delivered?

These questions are compounded by the fact that everyone wants habitats in good condition, but what constitutes good condition? Declan acknowledges that if someone doesn’t tell you what good condition is or what the answers to the above questions are, how is one expected to know.

Public events/visits to the habitats were tried as a means to disseminate knowledge but proved challenging, leaving the project clear in the mind that the dissemination of knowledge is best delivered through specific uplands management courses for farmers.

This, Declan says, must include visits to habitats to physically see what is desired. One of the greatest challenges in this regard was highlighted in finding suitable habitats.

Declan also stresses that it is a ‘no-brainer’ that these courses are carried out before joining the scheme. He says this does not change farmer attitudes, but it gives a much better understanding at the outset of what is expected of everyone.

Identifying the issues

Identifying what issues need to be addressed was the next port of call. This included, for example, addressing undergrazing and overgrazing, dense areas of bracken, erosion and water quality concerns. These issues cannot be taken in isolation, as striving to solve one issue can have negative consequences for another.

Uplands management plans

This is where the development of an uplands management plan comes in to play. This is viewed as critical as it outlines exactly what the targets are, what is expected of each stakeholder and the costs/financial incentives of doing such.

The first task was going out and walking the hills with the farmers, and this gave a good indication of who exactly was going to the hill and who is likely to go up there again and do anything in the future.

This was a two-way learning process, with farmers learning from an ecologist, but of equal importance, the ecologist learning from farmers why they do what they do, how they manage their livestock etc.

“The ecologist puts up a wish list, but farmers had to tell the ecologist what was practical and what wasn’t practical – so it was developed between them”.

The plan can be as simple or as complicated as you wish to make it, with Declan explaining that they had a simple plan that clearly listed out the actions for each year and some background information.

Change happens slowly in the uplands, habitats take time to adjust to new practices, and as such Declan stresses that at least a 10 to 15 year plan is needed.

He has no problem with five-year agri-environmental schemes being introduced, as long as there is a long-term plan that takes precedent.

“What we have a history of in the past is we have a scheme, five years, at the end of it we might sit out, nothing for a year or so and then come up with something brand new. Farmers need continuity, you need to be able to plan to know that what you are doing now will deliver in the future”.

Plans need to be able to be amended to adjust to deal with the unexpected consequences of change or factors outside of your control.

Managing the uplands

Uplands are the way they are, due to the way they have been managed in the past. If that management changes then so too does the habitat.

This is evident from a transition from cattle and horses grazing uplands to cattle virtually disappearing from uplands in the last 50 years. Attention must also be placed on the presence of deer, which have a substantial influence on grazing management.

One of the greatest challenges is reverting from a situation where sheep only graze the hills post-weaning with an imbalance of numbers across the year. This is often done due to financial reasons, or not having stock that are capable of performing on the hill.

Declan presented what he called ‘the four Rs of upland grazing’. This essentially is;

  • The right type of stock.
  • The right number of stock.
  • The right time of year.
  • The right area of the hill.
  • These elements will be discussed in detail at a later stage.

    Management in practice

    Hills are not like the lowlands, and therefore a different approach is needed. For example, addressing undergrazing in different areas or small patches as opposed to one large area delivers far more environmental benefits by delivering a mosaic-type habitat that encourages livestock to stay on the move.

    Options that are inaccessible may also be better served by leaving certain areas untouched and concentrate on the areas that will deliver the most benefits.

    Another point delivered is that farmers need to keep an open mind on practices such as rewetting small areas, tree planting etc to maintain funding within schemes and prevent funds being diverted to other bodies, such as the NPWS for example.

    Declan says these tasks can be completed either through financial incentives or making some actions mandatory as part of the plan.

    The Agri-Climate Rural Environment Scheme is viewed by Declan as a lost opportunity to build on the learnings in projects such as SUAS.

    He says that farmers are allowed to pick and choose from a menu of actions, and that this may fail to tackle what actually needs to be carried out in certain habitats. He concluded that rewarding farmers that actually deliver the work is the secret in bringing about positive changes in upland areas.