My special protected area

the impact of land designations on farmers


You are probably wondering what my special protected area is well it’s not an area you might be thinking of but a very important area non the less. Back in 2007 the Irish government designated around 170.000 hectares of private farm land as Special Protected Areas or SPAs which was done to protect rare and endangered birds and in my area it was for a bird called a hen harrier.

At the time we had been given assurances that this would not have any impact on our day to day running of the farm and that there was also a farm plan scheme which was in a way to compensate farmers for the designation and to help carry out some work on the farm to protect the endangered bird.

However anyone getting any other environmental payment at the time could not be eligible for the farm plan scheme run by the national parks and wildlife service, I myself was on the last year of the reps scheme, and by the time it had finished the following year the farm plan scheme had been scraped due to cutbacks in the budget as that was a time when banks had collapsed in Ireland and the country was in the midst of an economic recession.

The impact on farmers

As there was restrictions placed on what we could do with the land whether we were part of a scheme or not, they were known as notifiable actions where the farmer would have to get permission from the minister to carry out certain types of farm work like reseeding or spraying weeds or drainage or fencing etc. that in turn made it very difficult to make a profit from the farm due to limits on fertilizer etc.

I was told that it was also very difficult to get permission to carry out work on the farm and severe fines if you did the work without permission.
To make matters worse the department of agriculture had different rules to the department of the environment and they were penalizing farmers for having too many weeds or rushes on their farmland of if the fields were getting poached because they were too wet and needed drainage. So it turned out that in order to comply with one government department you could be in breach of regulations and penalised by another. Damned if you do and damned if you don’t in a way comes to mind.

I saw firsthand the impact that this had on the day to day running of the dairy farm on the ability to grow grass and the effect was reduced milk yield at a time when other farm payment schemes had been scrapped or cut back due to the recession in the country.

The Safety Net

In 2011, I applied to plant some of my land not that I wanted to but it was a sort of safety net in a way, in that if would provide some income to pay the bills where there was no other.

The application was refused as just at the time that I had applied the rules were changed again that banned the planting of forestry in SPAs. Although I found this very annoying and unfair at the time, in hind site I fully understand the decision as I believe that forestry is detrimental to the hen harrier and ecological system in upland areas.

It still however had a huge impact on farmers in upland areas as I would have had around 60 hectares inside an SPA if I had been allowed plant all of it at 440 euros per hectare it could have brought in an income of 26,400 for 15 years and they value of the thinning s and forestry afterwards.

With the safety net of forestry gone some farmers that tried to borrow money found a new problem in that with forestry companies or other farmers were not interested in buying farmland with designations and restrictions on it. the land in turn became almost worthless and sometimes the banks wouldn’t lend to farmers because of the value of this land. It was worse for farmers who had to sell for economic reasons or ill health.

I also know that it caused some health problems with some farmers probably due partly to the worry and financial stress that came along with it most of this was never spoken about publicly which could due to the farmers affected wanting to keep the matter private and within their own families.

impact of designations on family farms
farmers protesting over the impact of land designations on their livelihoods


Finally in around August 2014 a group of farmers from around ballydesmond in north Co. Cork came together to discuss what could be done to change things. The group called themselves Irish farmers with designated land or IFDL for short. They held meetings around the country with farmers who’s land had been designated to discuss the impacts that it was having on them at one such meeting I remember one farmer describe it as the greatest land grab in Ireland since Oliver Cromwell.

I really have to commend the work the committee of the IFDL and what they have done for farmers. Chair members Liam O Keeffe, Kenneth Fitzgerald, Sean Kelly, Morris Flynn, and most of all Jason Fitzgerald. Jason and his team worked relentlessly to highlight the issues farmers in the SPAs were having. They lobbied politicians locally in Dublin and in Europe to try to achieve a fair outcome for the farmers.

They also did a phenomenal amount of work in highlighting the effects of the land designations and had some success in getting some income for farmers in glas + which was worth 2000 euro for the farmers in hen harrier areas for a 5 year period. That reminds me of an election in 2016 when a politician came to my door canvasing for votes and I mentioned to him that it was he that signed off on the SPA land designations and the effect that it was having on farmers.

His answer was that now I could apply to get 2000 euro a year for 5 years, Oh great I replied that will go some way in making up for the 400,000 in forestry premiums that I missed out on for the next 15 years but won’t cover the earnings on clear fell of trees or losses to milk production or the devaluation of farmland. At that point he just shrugged his shoulders and walked away he didn’t get elected again either but that was not just down to me

Another success of the IFDL and some TDs that they lobbied was to get a hen harrier project scheme which is a locally led results based scheme similar to the burren project in co Clare. Although none of the schemes come anywhere near what was first on offer (the NPWS farm plan) when we were told our lands were going to be designated or won’t make up for the losses incurred at least it is something. Ifdl were looking for a scheme similar to forestry that would last for 15 years and be paid on a per hectare basis which was promised but never came to pass.

This article is not written to complain about the hen harrier itself or about the rights or wrongs of forestry or the land designations but simply to highlight the effects that it has had on some farmers in the area. I will try to write another article about the bird itself and how things are affecting it.

If you want to read further into how this has affected farmers you can click HERE or follow the story on twitter @IHenharrier but in order to keep this somewhat short I will finish up with the title I choose for this and why

I called it My special protected area that is because it is a family owned farm that was passed down to me from my late father and even if some people might like to turn it into a wildlife reserve and stop me from farming it in the way other farmers can with their farms the fact remains that it is still in my ownership as I did not sell it or give it away.

It will hopefully remain in my ownership until it is passed onto it’s next owner who hopefully will look after the farm and it’s wildlife as I have done. I know farmers in SPAs will continue to look for a deal even 14 years on and some in the government that hope we will shut up and go away but as long as there is injustice someone will speak up about it and the farmers in SPA areas are not going anywhere.

Farmers are often referred to as caretakers of the land but sometimes the caretakers need to be taken care of too. My hope is that the hen harrier project scheme can be built upon and when the glas scheme ends next year that it will be replaced with a proper new long term environmental scheme that will finally deal with the issue of land devaluation.


13 thoughts on “My special protected area

  1. Hello there very interesting article it is great to hear of the efforts being made to save this rare bird but I must say that farmers should not be made to lose out because of it. I have heard a bit about this and mostly the IFDL  I must say that that have been doing a great job since they started up.

    Hopefully farmers will get some compensation for their land.

  2. Wow! Very seriously, this is a rather sensitive post which I was able to deduce the meaning only after reading it multiple tiles. I hanks for bringing it into our notice concerning the hem harrier scheme and all. Well! Being a famrer myself that is not suffering from such in this part of the world that I am in, I couldn’t help but to feel rather bad towards all I have read here. This is worth sharing out. Thanks

  3. What an interesting story. Being in the UK, I hadn’t heard about this before but I think what you describe has also happened in this country, where the rights of farmers to make a living are constantly being threatened by conservation measures. There is an ongoing battle in my area between farmers trying to make an honest living and a so-called Trust which adds 5% to our Council Tax and just seems to exist to tell farmers they can’t graze their sheep on their own land, can’t remove plants which are endangered but poisonous to their livestock, can’t remove overgrown trees that pose a danger to people and animals and the list goes on. I realise there has to be a balance but I think, like you, most farmers want to act as caretakers. I wish you every success with your family business and hope you manage to overcome the difficulties being put in your way.

    1. Thank you if you had an outbreak of a poisonous plant like ragwort growing on your land in an SPA you are not allowed to spray it but you could be still fined and have payments cut for having it on your land which is typical of the bureaucracy of having two government departments singing from different hymen sheets

  4. My heart goes out to you.  That is just brutal – it’s difficult enough these days for farmers to make ends meet without the government telling you what you can and cannot do with your land.  Financial hard times for the government so the cut programs that the farmers NEED if their land has been conscripted for other use?  Balderdash!  I wish you the best of luck in getting your voice heard and getting the real help you need (while still protecting the area).

    1. Thank you there was some talk about taxing farm land here too some years back but it never came to pass thank god then they tried to tax the water but that did not go too well either. Things have improved a bit with the hen harrier project scheme but its only a drop in the ocean when compared to what forestry premiums would have offered and I dont think it will do enough to put value back in the land unless it is given a bigger budget over a longer time frame

    2. Is it possible to organise a scheme like “Bride Valley “ to be farmer led, to support the Hen harrier, but to allow you to farm in a more sustainable (for the farmer) way. I think They have a full time ecologist helping them. And it is getting results.

      1. Yes ned there is a scheme in place now called the Hen harrier project which is farmer led with the help of ecologists but its not paid per acre I would hope it could be built upon because when glas goes next year farmers will find it tough going unless there is more added to the scheme

  5. This is a very interesting article concerning the situation that this presented. Was there ever a solution that was came up with where the agriculture and farming would not be effected ?  One thing I would question too is although the land used is very big, what’s to ensure that they wouldn’t fly out of the area ?  Concerning the effects on farmers can the land just be purchased from them ? This is a very informative, and I hope a solution is or has been reached. 

    1. They are wild birds so fly where they want and only come to the area to nest but could nest somewhere else too. Purchasing the land from farmers was never mentioned 

  6. Hello, I really want to first appreciate your effort in putting this great website together and writing this article. it would be a great thing if we could get more voices to spread this more. the suffering of farmers is becoming alarming and if proper action is not taken then it might grow even worse

    1. Thank you benny I think all farmers in these areas want is to put value back in their farmland and to be able to make a living there. The scheme that is running at the moment probably pays most farmers around 20 euros a week for up to 5 years which in my opinion doesn’t go far enough to make up for the losses 

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