Michael Meharg farms a 250 ha suckler cow enterprise in county Antrim which includes conservation on a number of protected sites in NI. Passionate about the environment and rare breeds and with a background in ecology Michael facilitates work with farmers in the Lough Neagh area Environmental Farming Scheme focusing on delivering for priority habitats and breeding waders. Michael is interested in how the public and the market can better support nature friendly farming produce across Northern Ireland.
At Fortfarm Michael runs a traditional ‘suckler cattle’ herd which help graze Slievnacloy, which is an Area of Special Scientific Interest (ASSI) due to the species rich grasslands and rare species found there. calves are born from April each year to a herd of mainly pedigree Irish Moiled Cattle. This traditional breed, with its wide foraging ability, is ideally suited to grazing natural grassland in marginal settings, providing perfect conditions for wildflowers, orchids, butterflies and moths, as well as fungi, bird life, mammals, reptiles and amphibians. Michael has used his high-quality end product to develop growing market for grass-fed beef through direct sales to high end users including hotels, restaurants, cruise ships and private sales.
Why do you support nature friendly farming?
Nature friendly farming is vital to the biodiversity of our Islands. Ireland is an island, off an island on the western fringe of a continent with its own unique biodiversity and landscapes. These were formed by thousands of years of farming activity and the wildlife and landscapes we cherish today are dependent on sustainable farming to protect and enhance the current habitats and populations of resident and migrant species.
What nature friendly farming practices have you done on your farm?
I’ve Planted 4km of hedges. And around 1.5ha woodland with 2000 trees planted in 2019. We manage our grasslands with zero artificial fertilizer input and have fenced off 1.5 km of riparian strips for water quality. Recently we’ve incorporated micro generation of power – 20kw Solar farm we manage our grasslands sensitively for nature by delaying cutting to protect the Irish hare.
Our stock is an important tool in our conservation management with a herd of traditional Irish Moiled cattle which is a Rare Breeds Survival Trust focus species. The herd is used to graze 90ha of flood plain for resilience and water retention following heavy rains. We also graze 150 ha of upland priority habitat grassland Area of Special Scientific Interest. Much of what has been delivered has been through government funded agri environment schemes.
What has the impact been?
As a result of our conservation grazing, we’ve managed a threefold increase in stocking levels, as Irish Moiled Cattle have less of an impact on the land when compared to continental breeds.
Public support for environmental land management has provided a valuable income stream whilst we make around £30 000 per year from beef/ weaned calves sales. Implementing renewable energy has provided income of £5000 per annum from ROCs, direct sales whilst we also made savings on farm electricity costs. As a result of moving to a low input grazing regime we’ve achieved a reduction in contractor costs for artificial and slurry spreading of £4500 per annum. Our hardy native breeds are more resilient allowing for a reduction in veterinary bills. We’ve developed a growing market for our grass-fed beef through direct sales to high end users including hotel, restaurant, cruise ship and private sales.
What role do you see farmers playing in protecting nature?
Continuing the long service to maintaining our landscape and providing habitats for our wildlife – nature needs a range of farming activities, grazing, forestry and arable, to retain the wide range of habitats and landscapes that are integral to maintaining our nature – but this must be managed in a sustainable manner and needs support to fulfil this role.
Food production runs alongside this service as does carbon capture, flood alleviation and other ecosystem services. More recently farmers have become major players in production of green energy from solar and wind, another contribution to reduction in fossil fuels.
Why does nature friendly farming need government support?
Current policy is still too focused on production and increased output with not enough emphasis on working with the environment. Northern Ireland are currently in the process of developing future policies regarding both agriculture and the environment, they need to make the most of the opportunity to create policies with a central focus on environmental delivery through nature friendly farming. It is essential that policy reflects this coming together and that future farming policy reflects the role environment and protection of natural assets has in underpinning our landscapes and cultural heritage. Food security and sustainable production are important and in a post Brexit climate may bring opportunities for more locally sourced foods and supply chains of quality products from our natural environment. Policy should not support food or products from areas of the world eg tropical rain forest, coming to Britain and Ireland when we can produce these ourselves.
What’s the biggest threat to farmers post Brexit?
Being in Northern Ireland, I have concerns regarding agri food balance with competition from neighbouring farmers in the Republic of Ireland who will receive more subsidies and will not be subject to beef export tariffs. There’s also the risk of competition from other countries with lower welfare and environmental regulations, depending on future trade agreements. I’m also worried about the dilution of our laws regarding environmental protection for wildlife and the potential of a rise in costs for essential inputs.