Denise Lowe, Aurélie Aubry, Francis Lively, Dario Fornara, Rachael Ramsey, Eamon Meehan, Maria Snell and Donnacha Doody.
Project Code: BS-36-19
Seventy per cent of farmed land in Northern Ireland is classified as Less Favoured Areas (LFAs), designated because of their relatively poor agricultural conditions, and consists of Severely Disadvantaged Areas (SDA) and Disadvantaged Areas (DA). The hills and uplands of Northern Ireland are often categorised as SDA and represent a major land mass in the Northern Irish agricultural industry, extending to 44% of all farmed land in Northern Ireland, (Statistical Review of Northern Ireland Agriculture,2018). Agriculture provides an important source of employment in these remote areas. However, many farmers in SDAs are part-time (47%), with only 22% of other workers employed on a full-time basis.
These hills and uplands in Northern Ireland have potential to be an invaluable resource in our natural environment if properly managed - providing many important ecosystem services. While livestock grazing is a particularly important form of land use in hill farms across the UK, domestic livestock can have significant impacts on upland ecosystems. However, limited information exists regarding the potential impact that domestic grazing animals may have on soils and on their ability to perform key ecosystems functions including water regulation, nutrient cycling and soil carbon sequestration in upland areas.
While the effects of management (including livestock grazing) on nutrient cycling, soil microbial communities and structural quality have been investigated in intensive lowland grassland production systems across Ireland and the UK, these effects have been little addressed in upland farming systems. The conclusions and recommendations derived from such studies may not be directly transferrable to upland settings, which exhibit different soil types, intensity of grazing, rainfall patterns, and cultivation practices.
The overall long-term objective of this project is to investigate the synergies and trade-offs that exist between production and other ecosystems services in beef and sheep farming systems in the hills and uplands. The project will use co-development of expertise in livestock and environmental research in order to take a holistic, integrated approach to assess these synergies and trade-offs.
Objective 1: To review the literature and plan for phase 2 of the project on the linkages between livestock grazing, upland fire regimes and ecosystem services including soil biogeochemistry (soil carbon sequestration, soil nutrient cycling, soil erosion, soil carbon losses), water regulation and biodiversity.
A key goal of this project aligns to the Government target of net-zero emissions, with areas of potential environmental interest including carbon sequestration and storage in upland areas. These land masses have the potential to capture and store vast amounts of carbon, locking it in to stop it contributing to further climate change. However, if peatlands are left to degrade they could potentially become a carbon source. Healthy uplands also important for drinking water coming from upland catchments, they host internationally important biodiversity of plants and animals, and they ‘slow the flow’ of water which can reduce the impact of flooding.
Objective 2. To review the literature and plan for phase 2 of the project on beef and sheep farming systems in the uplands on animal performance and impact of the environment
Adaptions are envisaged to focus on natural capital solutions and changes to farm management practices that will, whenever possible, also improve the productivity and resilience of the production system. Areas of particular interest in this project include, but are not limited to, the grazing management of beef and sheep (mixed grazing and leader/follower systems); the impact of cattle breed (native versus continental) and season of calving.
Objective 3. To review the literature and plan for phase 2 of the project on cultural and social impacts of beef and sheep farming in hills and uplands
Additionally, these areas have an important cultural and social roles, including compelling evidence of benefits for both physical and mental health on being outdoors and enjoying the natural environment. The effect of beef and sheep farming systems on all these potential environmental and cultural impacts will be reviewed in the current project.
The objective of this one year project is to review current literature to ascertain where the research gaps are and make recommendation for the experimental stage of phase 2 of the project. The outcomes of these literature reviews are to provide information on what we should measure in phase 2 of the project and how we can measure it. Thus planning of phase 2 of the project will be an important part of this project, which will include recruitment of partners for phase 2 of the project.
Underpinning the project will be WP on communications and the formation of a stakeholder group. The aim of this is to disseminate updates and to gain feedback from the expert working group for the ongoing development and forward planning of a Phase 2 transformative project to inform future agri-environment policy.