OUTSIDE Donal Sheehan’s window, his back garden is teeming with life, as flurries of coal tits and finches compete busily for a turn at the bird-feeder.
But inside, over a cup of tea, Donal is listing the species of birds that he fears he’ll never see on his farm again in his lifetime.
“Skylarks are gone. Corncrakes are gone for 50 years. Lapwing, plover and curlew were wintering species here, and they’re gone. Cuckoo is gone. Grey partridge is gone, snipe is gone...”
It’s a subject Donal cares passionately about. He is a dairy farmer, managing a herd of 70 cattle on the outskirts of the North Cork village of Castlelyons, and this year he’s one of two recipients of Cork Environmental Forum’s pilot agricultural award, in recognition of his dedication to managing his land sustainably, or, as he’s keen to stress, as sustainably as possible while still making a living from his farm.
“We try to be sustainable, but I wouldn’t say we’re fully sustainable,” he says. “The word is bandied around a lot, but we need a clear definition. I feel that in the last couple of years, food producers are jumping on the band-wagon, so we need to ensure that our credibility is intact when we say something is a sustainable foodstuff.”
Donal still uses fertiliser to grow the grass his herd needs, but has instituted measures like rainwater harvesting and extending field margins as pollinator corridors to support his farm as an ecosystem as well as a livelihood. And he loves farming.
“You’re out in the countryside, in the green, with nature all around you,” he says. “People living in the city don’t have the opportunity to take in the sights and sounds and smells that are around you every day. I really appreciate that. But if you want to keep that enjoyment, you have to keep looking after it too.”
Looking after it isn’t always as simple as it sounds, and can be a matter of changing mindsets formed over a lifetime. The perception of an older generation of farmers, that hedgerows and wild field margins are somehow messy and a sign of lazy farm management, rather than as a deliberate tactic to improve biodiversity, is one that Donal has fallen foul of.
He laughs ruefully: “It came back to me from a neighbour of mine, who told me that some fella was saying, ‘Jesus, if Donal’s father could see the way the hedges are gone.’ So it’s got negative connotations: it’s a mindset.”
He says that it was keeping bees that changed everything for him; he took over his father’s hives a decade ago, and now sees his hedgerows and field margins as vital foraging grounds for them.
“You would have been able to see my mother’s house from here 15 years ago,” he says, looking out at the view from his kitchen window. “Those hedges used to be shaved down to the last, and there were no trees. You had a beautiful view, but no forage for bees.
“Neatness is what sterilises most of the countryside. Neatness went out the window. Now, all our fences are out a metre or two from the hedgerow, and whatever is there is sacrosanct and is left to the birds and pollinators.”
Since quotas were abolished in 2015, the only incentive for farmers under current policy is to squeeze as much yield from their land as they possibly can, a state of affairs that Donal feels is far from sustainable.
“I get paid to produce as much milk as possible, and that’s it,” he says. “A tillage farmer gets paid for as many tonnes to the acre as he can possibly get, with no incentive there to enhance the environment by improving water quality or having a low carbon footprint. They’re not factored into the price of the product. Unless the incentive is there, farmers won’t respond.”
As a result, Donal says, land is being over-stocked, with serious environmental consequences, including the loss of ground-nesting birds like those he listed.
But, up against the bottom line of trying to make ends meet, farmers need help to change. Donal believes that for sustainability to become a focus on Irish farms, there will need to be changes to government policy.
“When the consumer pays for a litre of milk, there’s currently no incentive to the farmer to produce that as sustainably as possible,” he says.”There’s no incentive for enhancing the environment; it’s not factored into the price.”
In a recent survey of 11 farms in the area, Donal’s land was found to be supporting 35 wild breeding species. He invites local schools on farm walks, and believes that education and awareness are vital tools in building a sustainable future.
It’s a third-generation farm, and Donal and his wife have two children, aged 15 and 10, but Donal doesn’t believe in playing the generation game; he feels it can put pressure on a younger generation to move into a career where they don’t have a vocation.
Tea finished, it’s time to go for a look at the top field, where he has been experimenting with planting a strip of wild bird cover in one of his fields: a mix of wildflowers that attract a variety of species.
You almost hear the thigh-high strip of bird cover as much as you can see it: it’s alive with rustling and chirping noises as small birds feed on poppies, linseed and cornflowers gone to seed.