Over the Hill: Persistent overgrazing causing 'devastation' in vulnerable habitats
Many upland areas are experiencing ongoing grazing pressure and degradation, with rare plants disappearing.
ON A CLEAR day, a hike from Benlettery to Ben Gower – two of Connemara’s Twelve Bens – reveals a lunar, barren landscape.
These mountains used to house rare and delicate species of liverworts, spore-producing plants that lack a vascular system, botanist Dr Rory Hodd told Noteworthy. He studied communities of these plants as part of his PhD research on Irish mountain vegetation at NUI Galway.
At this site, only two or three patches are thought to survive. “It’s still hanging on, but probably much diminished… It’s very stark to see the bare rock and soil, in a place that was covered by dense heather not that long ago.”
Overgrazing is leading to devastating ecological impacts across a number of habitats in Ireland – particularly the uplands.
A different rare, endangered liverwort species is thought to be entirely lost from Benbaun, another of the Twelve Bens. This was one of just two Irish localities in which it was known to thrive and as far as Hodd and his colleagues can tell, “it’s gone from there”.
Instead, the researcher said there is “devastation – rocks, and in between really small grass that’s suffering. It’s been grazed down to nothing, bare soil, it’s a very sad scene”.
Most of these species only grow on north-facing mountain slopes in the Himalayas, northwest Ireland and Scotland. “Because they are so restricted, they are very vulnerable and if you have any disturbance, such as overgrazing in this case, they are very quickly damaged,” he explained.
Hodd added that overgrazing damages the heather which these species depend on, so they can’t grow or function. Additional damage occurs when sheep trample the vegetation, knocking out rocks that might be shading the liverworts.
“Most of the Irish uplands are overgrazed but in Connemara it’s probably at its worst due to historical policies.” It is one of many factors contributing to the biodiversity crisis, according to the botanist.
As part of our OVER THE HILL investigation, Noteworthy visited several areas where overgrazing was referred to in government reports as having caused damage. Based on in-depth interviews with farmers, ecologists, campaigners and academics, as well as field visits, we can now reveal:
- Despite it being recognised as a problem by the Irish government for at least two decades, overgrazing remains an issue in many areas
- Several upland areas in Ireland, including in protected sites, are suffering from severe historic overgrazing, with many experiencing no recovery due to ongoing grazing pressure and degradation
- Rare plants are being lost in our uplands due to the impact of persistent overgrazing
- Overgrazing continues to be a problem in coastal habitats, including unique grasslands known as ‘machairs’ in Donegal
- Some hill farmers feel they are being blamed for ongoing degradation of habitats, but experts say this is a “tough life” with “little money” and more financial support is needed for “sustainable grazing”
- Experts are calling for a targeted, localised approach to address the degradation of ecosystems
‘Excessive damage to the land’
“Overgrazing is a subjective term,” Pádraic Fogarty, campaigns officer with the Irish Wildlife Trust told Noteworthy. On a hill or any piece of land with farm animals, the fact that it’s grazed at all will mean that there are “no trees” or “natural regeneration of vegetation”.
“That goes for pretty much everywhere in Ireland,” he said. But the term overgrazing is generally used when talking about “scenarios where really excessive damage is being done to the land”.
He added: “When you’re overgrazing to the point where all you can see is bare soil, you’ve destroyed the plant life…You’re just really desertifying it.”
Most farm animals eat vegetation very low to the ground, “which prevents it from flowering, seeding or offering anything to pollinators and other insects that depend on it”, according to Fogarty.
“You’re completely destroying the entire community.”
Overgrazing has also restricted sensitive species to inaccessible cliffs, added botanist Hodd. Tall herb species and rare arctic-alpine species are present on our mountains, but “restricted to a handful of ledges that the sheep can’t access, as they’re unable to handle the grazing pressure elsewhere,” he said.
Another impact of overgrazing is that it “is rendering habitats more vulnerable to invasive species,” said David Smyth, director on the board of the Native Woodland Trust.
When there is constant disturbance to ecosystems from overgrazing, the land is “more exposed and not able to regenerate. So invasive species will be able to establish more readily,” he said, mentioning rhododendron as an example of something that is not grazed by animals and takes over.
“Our national parks suffer from overgrazing, which is a mind blowing fact when you think about it – that we have animals for production in our national parks that are supposed to be there for nature.”
Overgrazing by deer in woodlands was recognised as a “huge problem” by Hodd. “A lot of our native woodlands are overgrazed,” agreed Fogarty. In these woodlands, “everything from the ground to the height of a deer’s mouth has been eaten”.
Ireland has almost the lowest forest cover in the EU, covering just over 11% of our land in 2020, of which just 2% is native woodland. Our forests also had the largest area (4.5%) suffering “damage caused by wildlife” in a 2020 European report which stated that “some herbivore species can pose a threat to the regeneration of forests”.
Wicklow Uplands: ‘One of the most damaged’
When it comes to overgrazing, the uplands in Ireland are among the most impacted, according to many experts that spoke to Noteworthy.
Irish upland habitats are in poor condition, according to the latest National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) report on the status of habitats protected by the EU Habitats Directive, published in 2019. Peatland habitats – including wet and dry heathlands (open habitats commonly dominated by heather) and blanket bog – are in bad condition, and overgrazing is mentioned as a threat for each of these habitats.
A stretch of peatland close to the sources of the rivers Liffey, Dargle and Glencree, near Kippure Mountain, was identified as “suffering from overgrazing” in the Wicklow Mountains National Park Management Plan in 2005. The investigation team visited the site, where bare peat is still present.
Blanket bog can be badly affected by overgrazing by sheep, said Dr Catherine Farrell who is employed by the NPWS. Farrell is project manager of the LIFE on Machair project which received €5.7m in EU funding last November.
Management Plan Map: Areas marked in orange are “suffering from overgrazing”
Farrell’s research has included assessing the condition of peatlands in the River Dargle catchment of the Wicklow mountains which is part of the Wicklow Mountains Special Area of Conservation (SAC). The catchment covers almost 180 km2 and its peatlands include blanket bog and wet heathland.
In a recent paper, Farrell and colleagues found that the overall condition of peatlands in the Dargle catchment was bad, with “ongoing erosion and degradation”.
She wrote recently that the main pressures here come from historical overgrazing, the effects of ongoing grazing practices, ongoing drainage and burning as well as increased recreation use.
When in good condition, peatlands store water, helping to regulate river flow and reduce flooding downstream, Farrell told Noteworthy. Intact bogs also house rare specialised vegetation which supports rare species such as hen harrier and red grouse. However, she added:
“Wet peat stores carbon, but if it dries out, it emits carbon into the atmosphere. Rain that falls on top of mountains can literally wash off bits of peat, which head down to the river with negative effects on water quality.”
“If you see erosion, bare peat and gullies, it’s a sure sign that something is wrong,” she said, adding that cracks in peat lead to peat slipping down at either side of them.
The Dargle catchment area in Wicklow is “one of the most damaged blanket bogs I have seen so far across Europe,” said Dr Guaduneth Chico, an environmental scientist at Nottingham Trent University who is researching the impact of livestock on 19 blanket bog sites in Europe and the Falkland Islands.
Most uplands are overgrazed not just in Ireland but also in the UK and Spain, he said. His research so far has indicated that, in Spanish peatlands, overgrazing by livestock is increasing erosion rates by four.
Chico plans on using camera traps in Wicklow and other Irish sites to assess how many sheep or deer are present and “whether erosion would happen without the livestock”.
We asked the NPWS what actions have been taken to address overgrazing in the Dargle catchment since publication of the 2005 Park Management Plan, but did not receive a response to this query.
Working to restore peatlands
In the west of Ireland, peatlands are being restored as part of Wild Atlantic Nature, a nine-year, EU-funded LIFE integrated project (IP) focusing on 35 blanket bog SACs from South Galway to North Donegal.
“There are many threats to blanket bogs, one of which is overgrazing,” said Derek McLoughlin, project manager with Wild Atlantic Nature. This project will run up to 2029 and aims to facilitate the delivery of the aims of the Habitats Directive, focusing on blanket bog, but also looking at climate, biodiversity and water policy outcomes.
The effects of overgrazing will vary from site to site, he said, with some sites quite resilient to heavy grazing, and others that are really very sensitive.
“We’ve got about 55 blanket bog SACs, generally along the west coast, and ultimately, nationally, we’re not meeting our objectives in terms of the conservation of these [habitats].”
Loughlin explained that Wild Atlantic Nature is working with 800 farmers on a pilot basis using results-based payments, whereby farmers get a higher payment for higher ecological quality and can improve their payments through actions.
Donegal Coast: ‘Unsuitable grazing regimes’
Overgrazing doesn’t just affect the uplands. It is also damaging machairs – unique habitats of species-rich grassland only found in the northwest coasts of Ireland and Scotland.
This leads to erosion and loss of habitat as well as rare species, said Farrell, LIFE on Machair project manager.
In its 2019 report on Irish habitats, the NPWS notes that the condition of machair is “inadequate”, with pressures including “ecologically unsuitable grazing regimes and disturbance”.
In Donegal, within the Gweedore Bay and Islands SAC, overgrazing is affecting parts of the Gaeltacht regions of Lunniagh and Derrybeg, according to NPWS 2015 conservation objectives. The investigation team visited the area and confirmed that the effects of overgrazing, including erosion and very low, tight grasses, are ongoing.
People have been farming these species-rich grasslands for three to four thousand years, said Farrell, but “the level of grazing needs to be right”.
Though grazing issues vary from site to site, she explained that signs of overgrazing include tight sward (collection of grasses), need for supplementary feeding, erosion around feeders and potential to contaminate water, as well as loss of biodiversity.
Ideally, she said, cattle or sheep should be put out on machair “at a low intensity, or an intensity that doesn’t cause damage” after September, when flowers have blossomed, pollinator plants have been out, and breeding waders have successfully bred.
LIFE on Machair, which will run from 2022 to 2028, has been developed to help address these issues on coastal systems, finding solutions through working with landowners and communities, including the sites at Derrybeg and Lunniagh, Farrell told Noteworthy. The aim is to ensure people and nature are supported mutually, she said.
“It is time for policy and payments to be restructured to support farmers to work with these systems and get them back to health, or else we will lose these special areas,” she added.
Sheep peaked at 8.9 million
Though Ireland has a long history of animals grazing in areas such as the machairs, it wasn’t until the 1800s, when large estates brought in a lot of sheep, that “the first major” damage was done “in our hills”, explained Wild Atlantic Nature’s McLoughlin.
A big change in land-use policy came with the advent of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), the European Union’s agricultural policy, in 1962, when payments for sheep were based on numbers of sheep.
“This gave rise to a really large number of sheep. This was an outside force that was irresistible for a country that had massive unemployment and a major rural decline,” McLoughlin told Noteworthy.
Policy changed again in the early 2000s, when farmers were no longer paid per number of animals and plans were introduced for each commonage, in many cases recommending reductions in the number of animals.
“At that stage the damage was ferocious in many areas,” said the Irish Wildlife Trust’s Fogarty, with many needing no animals in order to recover, but “that didn’t happen”.
The total number of sheep peaked at 8.9 million in 1992, falling to 5.2 million 25 years later in 2017, according to the Central Statistics Office (CSO). The latest national sheep census by the Department of Agriculture from 2020 identifies 3.8 million sheep, of which 1.1 million are on mountains.
“In the uplands,” said Farrell of the NPWS, “sheep numbers have been reduced, but we might need to take grazing livestock off altogether for the vegetation to recover completely, or to change the grazing regime, but that would have to be assessed on a catchment or a sub-catchment basis.”
But not everyone agrees that overgrazing is still a problem in the uplands, with Vincent Roddy, president of the Irish Natura and Hill Farmers’ Association telling Noteworthy that it “wouldn’t be a big issue at this stage”.
“It was an issue 20 years ago, but the biggest problem might be undergrazing [now],” he said, adding: “Grazing is an essential part of managing the uplands. Without it, we won’t have biodiversity and we run the risk of wildfires that are uncontrollable. From an environmental point of view, the cheapest way to deliver sustainable ecological services is through grazing of livestock.”
With a lot of the uplands in Natura 2000 sites, “there are fairly restrictive rules in place”, said Roddy. Despite this, these “habitats are stagnating”, he added, and “farmers on the hills are very frustrated with the fact that they are being blamed.”
“We have to pay for what we want,” said Catherine Keena, Teagasc Countryside Management Specialist. Upland farming is “a tough life. There is not much money there. It’s a hugely ageing population.”
Keena pointed out that payments through agri-environmental schemes of the CAP, which try to achieve “sustainable grazing”, are worth less to farmers than the basic payments (Pillar 1 of the CAP), “so for some people farming sustainably won’t be worth their while.”
Some areas need ‘no animals at all’
Though not everyone agreed on the extent of current overgrazing, most experts said that while certain habitats need some level of grazing to exist, others need none.
Within ecosystems, it’s important to retain a mixture of habitats with a diversity of species performing different functions, said Farrell. Certain habitats – such as grasslands and heathlands – “need grazing”, she said, but others – such as peatlands – don’t.
Dr Barry O’Donoghue, Head of Agri-Ecology with the NPWS, said Ireland has “a significant proportion of habitats at an EU level which need to be grazed”. For example, he said, if grazing was to cease entirely on heathlands, the habitat would revert to scrub and then woodland, with loss of species that are associated with heathlands, including butterflies and birds such as curlew or merlin.
Although it is “still a bit of a taboo at the moment,” said Fogarty, “some areas need to have no animals at all.” For instance, “blanket bogs are not capable of any grazing at all by any kind of farm animal. They’re not designed to have farm animals on them. They’re just not adapted to it,” he said.
“If you want a greater diversity of habitats and vegetation types, you do need some kind of grazing,” agreed botanist Hodd. “But at the moment everything is so overgrazed, that anywhere that’s undergrazed is providing a refuge for things, so it’s very tricky to decide what’s overgrazed, what’s undergrazed, what’s perfectly grazed. It’s very subjective.”
In addressing overgrazing, seasonal management of grazing also is important, according to McLoughlin of Wild Atlantic Nature.
In general, he explained, “there would be opposite seasonal management between machair and blanket bog”. This means in summer peatlands would be grazed but machairs wouldn’t, and in winter the opposite would happen. But the number of farmers in a commonage – sometimes over 40 – makes management more complex, he added.
He also said that the type of animals grazing also makes a difference, with lighter breeds of cattle, such as Galloway, Dexter, and Droimeann, well adapted to the hills.
Sheep are more selective, whereas cattle tend to graze on most vegetation, leaving behind “quite a good diversity” and opening up areas for sheep to graze on, thereby reducing grazing intensity in others, he said.
When it comes to fire risk, cattle also provide benefits by grazing on purple moor grass, molinia, which tends to dominate the hills as dead litter in spring and summer, and catches fire easily.
Fires in uplands and protected areas are becoming an increasing problem, most recently destroying habitat used by critically endangered breeding curlews in bogs in Co Galway.
Virtual fencing a ‘game changer’
Since 2020, the Agri-Ecology Unit of the NPWS has been implementing a pilot in which farm animals are fitted with GPS collars which allow farmers to keep them inside certain areas and outside others via an app, without the need for physical fences.
As an animal approaches the perimeter determined by the farmer, the collar emits a warning sound. If they cross it, they receive a small electrical pulse, explained O’Donoghue of the NPWS.
The technology is being piloted on four farms on sensitive habitats and peat soils, as part of the NPWS Farm Plan Scheme, which aims to support biodiversity on a field-by-field basis using a results-based approach, explained O’Donoghue.
Since this scheme launched 16 years ago, about 1,000 farm plans have been included, with an average investment of approximately €2 million per annum.
Virtual fencing allows grazing levels to be managed, while also allowing farmers to keep animals out of dangerous areas, he said.
“It’s been a complete game changer for us as farmers,” said Eileen Condon, who is trialling virtual fencing on her Galloway cattle – who she thinks of as “foot soldiers for biodiversity” – in the Knockmealdown Mountains, Co Tipperary.
“We’re able to utilise parts of the hill for the benefit of our own enterprise, as well as for the benefit of the environment. It has opened areas to us where we can have the animals. Before it, you just couldn’t put a physical fence up, it would have been completely impractical and also not respectful of our neighbours.”
The technology allowed for targeted grazing on molinia, “one of the most rapid conductors of wildfire spread on open moorland”, added Condon.
Farming for ‘a level of wildness’
For Gerard Walshe, a part-time farmer who runs a 22 hectare farm near Moycullen, Co Galway, “there’s a certain love of the land” that you have in yourself. “You have it in your DNA,” he said while walking across his farm.
Walshe keeps a dozen Belted Galloway cows “in the right balance [that is] manageable for the land area”. He likes to keep a diverse range of habitats on his land, including blanket bog, grassland and woodland which grows on an esker (a type of glacial deposit) on his farm.
“There is a balance – animals can be kept and a level of wildness can happen.”
While walking along a boreen next to his house to a soundtrack of chiffchaffs, he pointed out that many farmers have abandoned the adjoining lands, but that this has led to an increase in bird species over the years.
Trees in particular need to be recognised for the “nature value” they provide and “considered back into the landscape”, he said.
“Cattle don’t prevent birch, holly, hawthorn, coming up. If this wasn’t grazed, small trees wouldn’t get a chance to establish – to my mind cattle help places to rewild and trees come into the uplands.”
Connemara: Grazing for pearl mussels
Overgrazing doesn’t just affect the land, it affects the rivers and water quality of a catchment, for instance when loose soil and sediment gets washed into rivers.
The Pearl Mussel Project, a results-based EIP (European Innovation Partnership) program, encourages farmers, researchers and advisors to work together to improve water quality and habitats in eight catchments in the west of Ireland.
The freshwater pearl mussel, which can live up to 140 years, is an endangered species that, when present in high numbers, indicates high water quality, but influx of sediments, changes in river flow, drainage, and slurry or fertiliser are putting the mussel’s reproduction at risk.
Tom Keane, who keeps over 120 mountain ewes in the Dawros River catchment in Connemara, is taking part in the Pearl Mussel Project.
When he was growing up, the river was full of pearl mussels, trout and salmon, he told Noteworthy. Numbers have declined a lot over the years, but he said that there are quite a few pearl mussels now.
While walking across peatland and grassland on his farm, checking on newborn lambs, Keane pointed out the oak trees, hawthorns and mountain ash that can “withstand the winds”.
“A lot of people cut all the trees. I don’t know why. You have to have trees on your land in the summertime for shade for sheep and cattle, in winter [for] shelter, plus they are nice on your land.”
When it comes to grazing, he rotates his sheep from one area to another. He has a feel for how many sheep the hill can sustain: You shouldn’t “put too many sheep on the hill – you sort of learn yourself.”
It’s challenging to keep sheep in this area, he said, but he loves the wildness of the land. “You couldn’t get a better place to farm.”
The investigation team also visited the northern end of Doolough, in Mayo, within the Mweelrea/Sheeffry/Erriff Complex SAC. In this protected area, “some of the bog, heath and grassland habitats are suffering from overgrazing at present,” according to a 2021 NPWS report.
Here, the blanket bog has been overgrazed for years, said botanist Hodd. What remains is vegetation largely made up of tussocks of mat grass [Nardus grass], which is avoided by sheep because the leaves are really rich in silica, he explained.
We asked NPWS what actions are being taken to help address overgrazing at this site, but did not receive a response to this query.
Despite some areas still being overgrazed, a nine-hectare section at the northern end of the lake has been fenced off as part of the Pearl Mussel EIP’s work in the Bundorragha catchment.
There was historic overgrazing on this section as it was used by sheep to access the hill, said Mary McAndrew, West and North West Catchment Officer with the Pearl Mussel Project.
“It never got a break to recover” and mat grass was taking over, she said, but thanks to a targeted approach with the help of local farmers, vegetation is starting to come back. “The difference over one or two years is phenomenal.”
‘At the cusp of change’
“We have to acknowledge that there is a problem at the moment in how the uplands are managed,” said Dr James Moran, lecturer in agro-ecology at the Atlantic Technological University.
When it comes to protected sites, “there’s a lack of clarity around what the conservation objectives are for these areas in terms of overall land use,” he said, highlighting the need for a locally adapted, targeted land-use program that takes into account and promotes diversity of habitats.
Almost 98% of the 439 SACs in Ireland have conservation objectives listed on the NPWS website. A Noteworthy investigation last year, however, found that over 100 sites only had generic conservation objectives in place, while virtually no sites have management plans, well below the EU average.
The government recently promised an investment of an additional €55 million to the NPWS, doubling its current budget, and the recruitment of 60 staff.
We approached the Department of Agriculture to find out whether any changes in numbers of sheep or cattle are planned to reduce grazing pressure, but – in spite of multiple reminders – did not receive a response to this query.
Experts such as Moran and McLoughlin see the scaling up of results-based projects that work with farmers, such as EU LIFE projects and European Innovation Partnership projects, as the way forward.
Ireland’s draft CAP (2023-2027) – submitted to the EU Commission – includes a new agri-environmental scheme, which will see the roll out of so-called “cooperation projects” in eight areas “of particular environmental importance”.
These projects will take a result-based approach and target 20,000 farmers across all the blanket bog SACs in Ireland, explained McLoughlin. While “it remains to be seen exactly how it will go”, this is a “huge step”, both “really exciting and really challenging.”
Moran is also “excited about this new development”. It’s to target “about 60% of the 35,000 farmers” in designated areas.
He added that “it still hasn’t received enough budget to cover all the farms” but hoped that farmers in these types of “bespoke, locally-adapted schemes” would increase to 50,000 – or around 40% of total farmers – by 2030.
“There’s possibility there – we’re at the cusp of a change.”
However, how the terms and conditions of the schemes are written will be important, he cautioned, adding that there will need to be “considerable facilitation” for cooperation in commonages, where in some cases there may have been conflicts in the past.
Our OVER THE HILL investigation was carried out by Anthea Lacchia and edited by Maria Delaney. It was proposed and funded by readers of Noteworthy, the investigative journalism platform from The Journal.
You can support our work by submitting an investigation idea, funding a proposed project or setting up a monthly contribution to our general investigative fund HERE>>
We also have a number of other biodiversity-related projects which you can view here.