Farming in Northern Ireland
Farming is vital for Northern Ireland’s economy, environment and people. Find out how we work with farmers for a more sustainable future.
Farming and nature
Around 75 per cent (about 1 million hectares) of Northern Ireland’s countryside is farmed in some way. This industry is vital for the NI economy, employing more than 3.5 per cent of the total workforce - well above the UK average of 1.2 per cent.
Before the introduction of the Common Agriculture Policy (CAP) in the early 1970s, the NI agricultural landscape was a mix of arable and livestock farming, supplying varied habitat for farmland wildlife.
Land use in Northern Ireland is now dominated by improved grassland management for dairy, beef and sheep production, with small pockets of cereals, most of which is in County Down.
As elsewhere in Europe, agricultural policy has driven this process – and often with significant impact on farmland wildlife.
The loss of farmed habitats has pushed seed-eating birds such as yellowhammers and wetland-loving wading birds such as lapwings into steep decline. A recent survey found that between 1987 and 2013, numbers of breeding redshanks, curlews, lapwings and snipe had declined collectively by 83 per cent.
The last confirmed breeding corncrake in NI was in 2007, and other species, like the chough, teeter on the brink.
We believe that as well as its vital food production role, farming is of fundamental importance for wildlife and eco-system services (soil protection, climate regulation, water quality). Although agriculture is often associated with a suite of environmental problems, it can also provide the solution.
We all depend on farmers’ ability to produce food. The challenge is how to combine more productive farming, to sustain livelihoods and meet the growing demand for food, with sustainable, wildlife-friendly methods.
Agriculture can be good or bad for the environment, depending on the land management. For example, the soil on a farm can be managed so that it stores, filters and recycles carbon, rainwater and nutrients, or so that it erodes, loses fertility or compacts, losing its value.
Hedges can give food and shelter for birds and other wildlife, or be barren and sparse. The fields themselves can be managed to provide food and habitat for farmland wildlife at the same time as producing crops or livestock.
Northern Ireland now has some of the most sophisticated and productive farming in the world, and food shortages are thankfully things of the past. However, an unintended consequence of this has been a reduction in other countryside qualities that we need and value: wildlife, landscape character, water and soil quality.
We believe that we can develop agricultural and trade systems that meet our need for food without reducing these other benefits of farming.
Habitat loss remains the single biggest contributing factor to wildlife declines in Northern Ireland. This is compounded by the fact that funding for agri-environment schemes has declined significantly in recent years, giving farmers less opportunity to farm sustainably.
We work together closely with over 400 farmers and land managers to find ways to balance the needs of farming and wildlife.
Our advisory work is concentrated in core areas across Northern Ireland, including east County Down where we are continuing to work with farmers to help yellowhammers and other priority farmland birds.
In our wet grassland areas, we work with farmers around Lough Beg and Lough Erne, and up in the Antrim Hills on habitat management for curlews, lapwings, snipe and redshanks - our breeding waders that are dependent on farmland for their survival.
We have an advisory working with landowners on the polder land around Lough Foyle, which is home to a healthy population of lapwings and other important farmland birds.
Reserves and research
We also do a huge amount of work on our own nature reserves for our priority species. For example, on Rathlin Island we are managing an area of land specifically for choughs and also providing habitat for corncrakes. We also have other fabulous species which we are working with the landowners to preserve, including Irish lady’s tresses orchid, Irish hares and important arable plants.
The RSPB also carries out research to determine the effectiveness of agri-environment schemes. One such project found that giving advice to farmers and choosing particular agri-environment options increased the number of yellowhammers (a red-listed species) by 79 per cent.
The RSPB has also recently finished an INTERREG project entitled Halting Environmental Loss (HELP) which focused on habitat management advice provision in key areas for breeding waders. The results of this project showed an impressive increase in breeding waders, where in the wider countryside declines continue.