Agriculture around Lough Foyle, set-aside at Black Brae

Farmers in Northern Ireland

Here are just a few examples of farmers in Northern Ireland doing their bit for nature.

The seeds of success

Limited nesting habitats, lack of availability of winter seed, and fewer invertebrates to feed young on in spring and summer have contributed to widespread declines of farmland birds and yellowhammers have been particularly badly affected.

The RSPB is working with landowners to encourage specific habitat management in aid of the recovery of farmland birds like yellowhammers.

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Restoration of Lough Beg

Lough Beg represents 5% of all the wet grassland in Northern Ireland. It is an important habitat for a number of priority bird species and a range of other wildlife, including rare plants, such as the Irish lady tresses orchid.

RSPB assisted along with a full time conservation advisor, worked with local farmers and landowners in the restoration of habitats and breeding grounds for wading birds.


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Michael Calvert

Michael’s arable farm is situated in the drumlin landscape of Co. Down, just inland from Strangford Lough.

After joining the RSPB’s Yellowhammer Recovery Project in 2006, Michael has seen numbers of linnets, reed buntings, tree sparrows and yellowhammers triumphantly increase as a result of his hard work and focus.

Simple measures, including planting hedgerows and native woodland, limiting insecticide and herbicide use and utilising arable options like wild bird cover available through DARD’s Countryside Management Scheme, have made this possible.

Orchids, newts and dragonflies are found in fenced off areas around the Glen Burn - which runs through part of the farm - and an area of sensitively managed fenland attracts many species.

David Knox

David Knox runs a mixed beef and sheep enterprise on our beautiful Causeway coast, home to the Giant’s Causeway and Northern Ireland’s only remaining pair of choughs.

David joined the Environmentally Sensitive Areas (ESA) Scheme when it first opened in 1995. Along with several farmers on the Northern Ireland North coast, he entered into the scheme’s chough option.

As part of his management plan, he keeps whin (gorse) scrub from spreading and uses a mixed grazing regime, out-wintering of cattle and staggered silage cutting to ensure that his grassland swards are nice and short throughout the year for chough.

But David’s work doesn’t end with his ESA prescriptions. With assistance from the RSPB, he has also put up a fence on the steep causeway cliffs, allowing grazing to be re-instated for the first time in a generation and opening up an historical feeding site for the chough – a tall order for both man and beast!

Finding out that choughs in Scotland sometimes use sheds for nesting, he made modifications to an existing farm building which the chough sheltered in, and built a nesting platform. David was rewarded in 2002 when chough fledged successfully on his cliffs, for the first time in four years.

In 2005, he went a step further, entering the newer Countryside Management Scheme, and re-instating arable on the farm. By growing a mix of under-sown cereals and conservation cereal plus stubble in rotation, David is doing what many farmers on the North Coast used to do. To him this makes sense, the grain goes for his own cattle feed, he avails of the CMS payments and the chough benefits.

The stubbles have also provided a lifeline for other farmland birds – the farm now plays host to significant wintering flocks of twite and reed buntings. In David’s words, "The choughs bring the landscape to life and I have thoroughly enjoyed monitoring their progress while enhancing the habitat available to them".

Hugh and Bridget Watson

Hugh and Bridget Watson farm in Cloghey on the Ards peninsula in Northern Ireland.

Cereal growing has declined across much of the country, but in this eastern part of Co Down with its lower rainfall and sheltered position, it continues.

"Like many of our neighbours, we still farm in a mixed way. Our main business is beef cattle, sheep and potatoes and we also grow some cereal which we sell off for cattle feed. We've always had an interest in wildlife and in June 2005 we joined Northern Ireland's Countryside Management Scheme (CMS).

"We already had stubbles on the farm and also took on growing some wild bird cover to provide more food for the birds, as well as planting up hedges and tree-planting along the edges of fields. Then in 2007, Claire Barnett from the RSPB asked us if we wanted to take part in the RSPB's Yellowhammer Recovery Project.

"Claire explained to us that seed-eating birds like the yellowhammer also needed plenty of insects to feed their chicks. So, with help from Claire and our local advisor in the DARD office, we added conservation cereal and rough grass margins to our CMS agreement, to provide more insects for the yellowhammer.

"We put the rough grass margins around the fields of conservation cereal, and over the winter we run a few sheep over the stubble. When the sheep graze the stubble they also go into the margins and do a bit of grazing there. Claire says this helps to open up the margins so that yellowhammers can get at the insects in them.

"We have a lot of small birds on the farm - yellowhammer, tree sparrow, linnet, stonechat and whitethroat and we feel that there are a lot more since we have joined the project. This year, we bought our first binoculars through the RSPB, so we could get a better look at them!"