Sustainable management of the farmed habitats of the Aran Islands

The remote Aran Islands are situated off the west coast of Ireland. Much of the land here is still being used for low intensity farming which, combined with the minimal use of fertilisers, has helped to maintain a rich island biodiversity. All three islands host a number of rare habitats including limestone pavement, calcareous grassland and Machair, which is why they are now protected in their entirety as Natura 2000 sites. However, the economics of this farming system is such that many farmers have been obliged to abandon, restructure or reduce their farming activity, resulting in a serious decline in the condition of the valuable habitat types.

Two LIFE-funded projects have been undertaken to counter this negative trend. The first - AranLIFE (2014 to 2018) - aimed to demonstrate best management techniques to maintain and restore sites to a favourable condition by addressing the threats of land abandonment, under-grazing, intensification and the loss of traditional management systems. The project achieved this by facilitating optimum grazing, improving access to land parcels, clearing scrub, and providing better access to water for livestock. The conservation status of 1 011 ha of priority habitats was considerably improved thanks to these activities.

The follow up project, Caomhnú Árann, which runs from 2019-2021 builds on the work of AranLIFE, increasing the number of farmers involved from 67 to 127 and targeting an additional 500 ha of designated habitat. The principles of AranLIFE still apply in terms of ensuring adequate grazing levels and management to maximise the condition of priority habitats. But, in addition, the new project is trialing a new result-based agri-environment programme with a simplified scoring system to assess its effectiveness and using drone technology to reduce administration costs. It is also investigating the potential of harvesting and marketing seed from high quality species rich grasslands.

Thanks to these projects, the priority habitats on these islands have a better conservation status and there is an enhanced understanding, appreciation and engagement of key stakeholders in the conservation of these habitats. The projects have also led to recommendations for appropriate support mechanisms to ensure the long-term future of farming on the Aran Islands.

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