Farming the Iveragh uplands: A tale of humans and nature

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Kramm, Nadine
Anderson, Roslyn M.
O'Rourke, Eileen
Emmerson, Mark C.
O'Halloran, John
Chisholm, Nicholas
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University College Cork
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The rugged beauty of the Iveragh peninsula has fascinated many a passing visitor and never fails to make some of us linger or stay for good. For those who need proof of the area’s uniqueness, a variety of national and European designations provide ample attestation of the splendour of Iveragh’s scenery, the diversity of its landscape and its heritage. Being surrounded on three sides by the Atlantic, Iveragh is the largest and most geographically isolated peninsula in Ireland whose western extremity, the Great Skellig, forms the westernmost point of Europe. Despite its maritime location, Iveragh’s character is fundamentally determined by the mountains, valleys and streams that form the peninsula’s interior—the bequest of a landscape sculpted by ice thousands of years ago (Crowley and Sheehan, 2009). Distinctive mountain scene in the Bridia Valley, Glencar Perhaps most distinctive, however, are the extensive blanket bogs and upland heather moorlands that cover most of the peninsula and captivate the imagination with the wild and austere appeal of an area where life did not change much for man and beast until relatively recently. Having come into existence in the wake of woodland clearances, the cutting of vegetation for fuel and the harvesting of crops for food and fiber by Neolithic farmers in the first and second millennium BC, this unique cultural landscape continues to be managed by traditional farmers and their animals to the present day. The value of areas such as Iveragh as repositories of a unique flora and fauna has long been recognized, but they have entered a period of major transformation as the agricultural economy that lay behind them no longer exists (Webb, 1998). The single largest danger is that farming communities may not survive the present discussion of how competitive European agriculture should be, as under present market conditions they are unable to compete without fundamentally changing their way of farming (Luick, 1998). The last 10 years have seen a growing debate over the future of areas like the Iveragh peninsula that may be ‘marginal’ in agricultural terms, but that are quite essential to life in Europe as we know and cherish it. Upland farmed landscapes provide clean water, maintain a rich plant and animal life and help to keep families in regions that offer few alternative employment opportunities – at the same time as attracting millions of tourists each year. The Caragh in Glencar—one of Europe’s cleanest rivers. Such areas, also termed high nature value farmland, cover about 25% of all agricultural land in Ireland and include, besides Iveragh, other parts of Kerry, Connemara, Mayo, Donegal, the Comeraghs, Wicklow, the Burren and the offshore Islands. The farming systems of these areas are characterised by extensive mixed livestock grazing and little agro-chemical inputs combined with labour-intensive management practices. Without dedicated farmers and their families, the character of these areas would change completely leading to the disappearance of unique cultural landscapes with effects such as rural depopulation and the loss of local communities. Already farming systems have changed substantially with livestock being concentrated on better quality land while marginal areas are being abandoned. Along with this, there are changes in the animals being farmed. The traditional Scotch Blackface sheep are increasingly crossed with or replaced by lowland breeds to satisfy market demands for heavy lamb. This has led to a softening in sheep and the fear among farmers that the traditional grazers of the uplands may be extinct in years to come. Going, too, is the use of the native rustic Kerry cow that grazed the rough Farming the Iveragh Uplands grasses, bracken, gorse and soft rushes in the winter - growth that sheep cannot control. Unsurprisingly, this disruption over a relatively short time, in what was formerly a sustainable relationship between farming and nature, will have implications for the area’s flora and fauna. Some of the repercussions are obvious; others need to be researched in more depth if appropriate solutions are to be formulated. It is now a stated objective of EU environment and rural development policy to maintain and conserve traditional farming systems like the one practised on Iveragh. Beyond acknowledging the importance of traditional farming for nature conservation and local livelihoods, it is necessary to understand how such farming systems function and to determine how the inevitable process of change can be redirected to provide a way of life that is socially and economically rewarding for farm families while preserving the farming practices necessary for Iveragh’s unique landscape to persist into the future. In this light, University College Cork (UCC) in conjunction with the Environmental Research Institute (ERI) and funded by Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) initiated BioUp, a 3 year research programme to investigate the upland farming system and rich biodiversity associated with it. Managing rural change in the uplands calls for the active involvement of many stakeholders, including farmers and agricultural advisory groups, land owners, conservation groups, forestry, tourism, and local authorities. In the BioUp project, researchers and stakeholders worked closely together. It is hoped that this will help to obtain a better understanding of the social, economic and environmental challenges facing Iveragh and promote greater public appreciation of the indispensable contributions made by farm families to maintaining our unique heritage - a service that has gone unappreciated too long.
Iveragh Peninsula, Kerry , Traditional farming , Upland grazing
Kramm. N., Anderson, R., O’Rourke, E., Emmerson, M., O’Halloran, J., Chisholm, N. (2010). Farming the Iveragh Uplands: A tale of humans and nature. University College Cork. Cork.
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