Farmers help conserve one of Northern Ireland's most iconic landscapes

Paddy McSparron, a sheep and cattle farmer in Glendun, was one of the first to get planting underway
Paddy McSparron, a sheep and cattle farmer in Glendun, was one of the first to get planting underway

One of Northern Ireland’s most iconic landscapes is in the limelight thanks to a five-year project supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund and backed by farmers.

The scheme aims to conserve and enhance the natural heritage of the Glens of Antrim, with a boost to the area’s tourism and the profitability of farms high on the list of anticipated outcomes.

The Heart of the Glens landscape partnership scheme, the brainchild of the Causeway Coast and Glens Heritage Trust, is currently focusing on landscape resilience.

It’s a joined-up approach with support from conservation charity the Woodland Trust and, at its core, the backing of local farmers.

Dr Réamaí Mathers, the landscape partnership manager, says the scheme is putting the business needs of the farmer "first and foremost".

“We’ve seen challenging times for farmers, with extremes of weather and flooding commonplace. And, essentially, we’re using ‘green infrastructure’ – trees, hedging, woodland and species-rich pasture – as a natural ally to tackle a range of issues. We’re even exploring new stock options,” Mr Mathers explained.

“We’re surveying each farm individually and developing separate farm plans based on particular needs. Trees are being planted where they’re needed most and for a variety of reasons. Shelter for livestock, a sustainable source of wood fuel, improved water quality and drainage are just some of the reasons cited.

“It’s good news for farm profits and – at the same time – we’ll see undoubted and multiple environmental benefits.”

'Hedgerows with a difference'

Thousands of new native trees are taking root across a landscape which, although famously scenic, is extremely lacking when it comes to trees and woodland.

Gregor Fulton, estate and outreach manager with the Woodland Trust, added that a consortium of farmers have already benefited from expert advice.

He said the Woodland Trust are encouraging farmers to plant hedgerows "with a difference".

“Grant-aid for tree planting has come from the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, with support from the Woodland Trust for areas ineligible for government funding,” Mr Fulton said.

“Trees and farming shouldn’t be a contradictory land use. Rather, in today’s challenging climate trees bring real benefits – to the soil, water, livestock and crops – and with the potential to offer an alternative income for the farm.

“We’re encouraging some of the farmers to plant hedgerows with a difference. They typically include a double row of hedgerow species and a double row of trees, with fencing on either side. Over four metres wide in places, they’re much thicker and robust than the usual hedgerow and will soon resemble a long narrow strip of woodland.

“Because of the fencing, the grasses are protected from grazing, so we’ll start to see wildflowers, the likes of primroses, coming up. And, in time to come, the network of trees and hedges will provide a habitat and corridor for mammals, including the population of precious red squirrels.”

Stone walling

The scheme aims to keep some traditional skills such as stone walling alive.

It also encourages a return to traditional flower-rich meadows, which are both easy on the eye and important for pollinators.

Thirteen farmers in the Glens are already on-board, with 860 hectares (2,125 acres) of land surveyed. As a result, 80 hectares (198 acres) of land and over 6 miles of hedgerows have been planted1.

Paddy McSparron, a sheep and cattle farmer in Glendun, was one of the first to get planting underway.

Improved shelterbelts and drainage were just some of the motivators and, one year on, Mr McSparron already sees an improvement in the land.