Aran Islands, County Galway, Ireland
AranLIFE, farmers improving conservation status of Natura 2000 sites
Patrick McGurn, Project Manager, AranLIFE
James Moran, Institute of Technology, Sligo
The Aran Islands lie in the Atlantic Ocean off the west coast of Ireland within the County of Galway. They are a geological extension of the karstic limestone region of the Burren. The three inhabited islands – Inis Mór, Inis Meáin, and Inis Oírr cover 43.3 km2 or 4,330ha. The Islands have supported farming communities for over 4,000 years and this has left behind a rich cultural legacy most dramatically seen in the spectacular great forts on the Islands and the dense web of high (to 2m) field wall systems. Climatically, the Aran Islands are subject to the influence of the North Atlantic Drift which ensures mild winters. The Islands contain a mixture of rare European habitat types including Orchid-rich grassland/Calcareous grassland (6210), Lowland hay meadows (6510), Limestone pavement (8240) and Machair (21AO). Over 75% of the total land area is designated as a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) under the EU Habitats Directive.
The agricultural system on the Islands is low-intensity agricultural production of cattle and sheep traditionally with a small area of tillage for on-farm use. The low intensity agricultural system has created a unique farmed landscape of small fields, enclosed by stone walls, with high associated biodiversity. Farms are highly fragmented, made up of several different habitat types, e.g. Machair, Calcareous grassland and Limestone Pavement. The mild climate and dry fields mean that cattle are not housed but wintered on specific areas of the farm. This is a specialised system allowing a volume of grass to grow in the summer which is then grazed during the winter. These areas are known as “winterage” and are commonly on the areas of limestone pavement. This outwintering of cattle is critical in ensuring the presence of such a distinctive flora, as without adequate winter grazing bramble (Rubus fruticosus agg.) and blackthorn (Prunus spinosa) become dominant. Cattle diets are often supplemented with hay which is still cut by hand and often dried on the surrounding walls.
In 2000, the area farmed was recorded as 3,025ha across 224 farmers on the three islands, indicating an average size of approximately 13.5ha, significantly below the national average of 31.4ha (CSO, 2000). Cattle are sold as yearlings to dealers and transported to the mainland for finishing.
Table 1. The average farm size on the three islands in relation to the national average (hectares)
A case study report (Smith et al. 2010) highlighted past agri-environment schemes benefited the islands through the provision of economic support to farmers, but they failed to adequately address a number of conservation issues including the maintenance of priority habitats designated under the EU Habitats Directive. Farmers on the Islands felt a different approach was required.
Building on the work from the BurrenLIFE project, a total of 48 islanders attended workshops to assist with the future development of a targeted project. From the workshops, feedback from additional meetings and farm visits, a project team in consultation with the farmers drew up a list of issues and proposed solutions (Table 1). Using this information and other sources an application was made to the EU LIFE Nature programme to address these problems and work with all stakeholders in the sustainable management of the priority terrestrial Habitats Directive Annex 1 habitats of the Aran Islands. The application was successful with 75% funding from EU LIFE and the remainder from Department of Agriculture (DAFM), Department of Arts, Heritage and Gaeltacht, Teagasc (the national agricultural research body), Fáilte Ireland (tourist board), The Heritage Council and Galway County Council.
Table 1. The problems restricting correct grazing management and associated solutions as developed with farmers from the islands.
The programme has just started, working with 68 of the 224 farmers demonstrating best practice over a range of conditions. An important aspect of the project is bringing together all the different stakeholders, farmers, government agencies, heritage groups and the people responsible for tourism as the islands receive up on 250,000 tourists per year and the iconic farming landscape is the main driver for this. The project is facilitating local solutions to local problems bringing together the best research available and demonstrating them on the ground. Whilst up on 75% of the area is designated as Natura 2000, the remaining 25% is still ecologically interesting and part of the HNV farming system. Under the LIFE project work is limited to the designated areas but it is envisaged future programmes developed from the projects outcomes will benefit the total area and offer a blueprint for projects in other HNV areas within Ireland.
Smith, G.F., Bligh, J., Delaney, E., Egan, M., O’Donavan, G., O’Donaghue, P., O’Hara, K. (2010). Case Studies on High Nature Value Farming in Ireland: Aran Islands and Connemara. A report to the Heritage Council, Ireland.
Central Statistics Office (CSO) (2000) Census of Agriculture. Stationery Office, Dublin