€20.6 million bog conservation project unveiled as Biodiversity Week is launched

The €20.6 million LIFE IP Wild Atlantic Nature project was officially launched today in Ballycroy, Co. Mayo by Minister of State for Heritage and Electoral Reform at the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Malcolm Noonan, and Minister of State for Land Use and Biodiversity at the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Senator Pippa Hackett.

LIFE IP Wild Atlantic Nature is a wide reaching project primarily aimed at the delivery of environmental and social benefits through the conservation and restoration of blanket bog habitat in northwest Ireland, working closely with the local community. The project has 35 sites covering a total of more than 250,000 hectares along the Western seaboard from south Galway to north Donegal.

The project is coordinated by the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage. Nine other associated beneficiaries are involved in the project, including the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Teagasc, Bord na Móna, Coillte, RTÉ, Fáilte Ireland, The Heritage Council, Northern and Western Regional Assembly, and Universidade de Santiago de Compostela.

Speaking at the launch, Minister Noonan stated:

“I can think of no better way to kick off National Biodiversity Week than with a major €20 million blanket bog restoration project working with farmers and communities in the northwest of Ireland. This innovative project puts people, and the ecological health of the landscapes they live and work in, at the heart of its efforts. I believe that collaborative approaches like this one are the best ways to deliver real impact for nature. A few months ago, I visited this area and met with people involved in locally-led rhododendron control under the umbrella of this LIFE project. It’s a great example of the successes already underway. The protection of our blanket bog habitats is vitally important as we work to address our biodiversity and climate crises, and I’m confident that this project will deliver many benefits to the area – social, environmental and economic.”

LIFE IP Wild Atlantic Nature has successfully launched a pilot Results-Based agri-environment Payment Scheme (RBPS) in the Owenduff/Nephin Complex SAC for 2021, and will expand to Donegal, Sligo and other parts of Mayo in 2022. The RBPS directly links farmer payments to the environmental quality of the farm. This approach incentivises and rewards restoration and conservation of high-quality habitats and puts farmers and their skills, expertise and knowledge of their land central to the development of the initiative. The results of this pilot will inform future results-based actions to be incorporated into Common Agricultural Policy Agri-Environment, Climate Measures (AECMs) from 2023. More than 150 farmers in Co. Mayo took part in the pilot agri-environment initiative in 2021 and have received total payments in excess of €500,000. The pilot will be expanded to other project areas in 2022, with more than 800 farmers expected to benefit from the scheme.

Minister Hackett highlighted the importance of the work already done by LIFE IP Wild Atlantic Nature in the development of agri-environment measures:

“LIFE IP Wild Atlantic Nature is a fantastic project driven by the local community and delivering results for nature and biodiversity. The results based element is very important because it supports farmers to really engage and deliver for their local ecosystem. I was delighted to be in my home county of Mayo today with my colleague Minister Noonan at the start of Biodiversity Week to see real community effort on biodiversity first hand.”

Another successful initiative in the first year of LIFE IP Wild Atlantic Nature is an invasive species control project to stop the spread of rhododendron ponticum in the Delphi area. This project, conceived by local landowners, is currently working to develop and demonstrate a community-led Rhododendron control programme at the catchment level and will produce an action plan including best practice guidelines for communities and local authorities. The project works with a range of stakeholders to develop and test best-practice methods for treating Rhododendron at different densities and maturity and provide recommendations for upscaling in other Rhododendron infestation sites.

In addition to practical conservation work, LIFE IP Wild Atlantic Nature will also implement a number of actions aimed at enhancing wider community engagement including:

  • establishing local support groups in the project sites
  • developing and implementing community knowledge exchange programmes
  • administering community outreach activities
  • developing a schools education programme
  • promotion of the Natura 2000 network
  • supporting communities to develop and manage tourism and recreational activities and develop appropriate infrastructure

Other actions will include site surveys, ecological assessments, training for nature conservation, control of invasive species, fire prevention and water management. These activities aim to deliver environmental and social benefits for local areas and inform broader policy and practice across Ireland and the EU.

A common thread among these different project activities is the integration of various policies with practical land use. Project Manager, Dr Derek McLoughlin, views this coherence as a crucial driver of ecological restoration:

“This project aims to implement government policies related to nature, agriculture and climate in a way that works for the local community. Ultimately we depend on landowners to manage the land to deliver the goods and services that the public want and need. We depend on existing knowledge and experience that landowners and land managers have. Therefore, we need to ensure coherent messages on the use of land and have the appropriate policy to deliver good environmental outcomes in a way that can support farmers’ livelihoods.”

According to Dr Gary Goggins of LIFE IP Wild Atlantic Nature:

“We have been blown away with the level of support we have received from farmers and local communities in the first year of the project. We were working in difficult circumstances with the COVID-19 pandemic, but despite this, local people have really engaged with the project and have been extremely willing to get involved and put forward novel ideas for blanket bog conservation in their local areas. This sends a clear message that strong support through funding and advice is needed for projects that make sense for local people and for the environment.”