Where Old School Farming meets High Tech
In this article we speak to Pat McKenna, a North Monaghan farmer about his role in the innovative conservation grazing programme on Sliabh Beagh. We also find out how “Virtual Fencing” and other conservation efforts are helping restore Sliabh Beagh’s ecological richness.
Back in 2007 a massive fire destroyed over 700 hectares (1750 acres) of the Special Area of Conversation located on the upper slopes of Sliabh Beagh in North Monaghan. The fire wiped out ground nesting birds and vast areas of rare flora and fauna and it can take an upland many years to recover: in the aftermath of a fire some of the first species to reestablish are the invasive and quick growing grasses that can choke and restrict the rarer plant species. Locals were also noticing reductions in rare ground nesting birds as well as increasing amounts of self seeding Sitka Spruce from conifer forestry plantations. In response, a group of stakeholders developed maps detailing vegetation types across the vast area as well as history of burns in the area. It was decided that conservation grazing would be a cost effective method to graze the fire prone vegetation and thus reduce the intensity and spread of any future fires. The mountain area is vast and so electronic collars are fitted to the cattle enabling the farmer to track their movements and also allowing virtual fencing to restrict cattle to where they are needed.
High Tech Grazing
Pat farms a Dexter suckler herd on the lower slopes of Sliabh Beagh and he was instrumental in adopting the “No Fence” electronic collars that are fitted on the cattle. These collars (costing around €270 each) make conservation grazing possible. Without the collars, the cattle would spread over vast areas without making a proper impact into the overgrowth – the fire would still be able to spread easily. The collars also solve the problem of finding the small docile creatures in such a wild and rolling landscape. Pat explained, “Heading up there every day to check the cattle can take a hour and a half. The collars mean I now have a better idea of where my cattle are and how they are behaving while also allowing me to visit less often. It’s a dramatic time saver and I can check their movements and location 24 / 7.”
The “No Fence” system causes the collar to beep when the cattle approach the “virtual” boundary which has been created by the user on the No Fence App. The idea is that the cattle know to stay within boundaries set by the farmer and in theory they can strip graze an area without any physical boundary. However Pat has found that Dexter react better when the virtual fence follows a visual feature on the ground – albeit a patchy raised bank, a dried up ditch or a single strand of barbed wire. Once the cattle hear the warning signal and see the physical impediment they know to turn back. Otherwise they risk a short electric shock. Once the Dexter get to understand the system they rarely activate the electric shock as they understand the warning beep and move away. The No Fence App records all attempts by individual cattle to break the perimeter and allows Pat to move that animal down to traditional grazing pastures if it isn’t suitable for the mountain. There’s talk of overwintering the Dexter out on the mountain but it would bring extra challenges for the farmer during extreme weather conditions – keeping access to water and food during prolonged periods of snow or heavy frost could be very difficult.
Other Conservation Activities
Since the late Lord Rossmore gifted a large swathe of the mountain to An Taisce, they have been trying to work with local stakeholders such as Pat and others to enhance the biodiversity of the area. CANN, the Collaborative Action for the Natura Network project, (who are funded through Interreg) ensure that conservation grazing activities stay in line with enhancing nature. The River Blackwater Catchment Trust (who operate on both sides of the border) have been involved in helping to fence off waterways so they remain pristine. The Trust also received €7500 to deal with 50 hectares of self seeding Sitka Spruce which had blown out from the conifer forestry plantations in the area. The work is approved by the National Parks and Wildlife Service who are a national body with responsibility for protecting certain habitats. Alan McCabe, who works with the Trust explained that “the Sitka change the hydrology of the ground and actually create the conditions in which other invasive species such as Rhododendron can thrive. It’s a matter of taking action before things get out of control. Native trees can’t grow very large or tall in these upland conditions whereas Spruce can thrive – the height of the Sitka Spruce gives predatory birds an ideal vantage point to survey the landscape and an unfair advantage over ground nesting birds. In this sense every tree removed creates more opportunities for ground nesting birds.” Other wildlife enthusiasts such as Bird Watch Ireland are also involved in recording bird species at certain times of the year, all of which is helping to provide a detailed record of what species are on the ground and how their numbers are changing over time. Pat also specifically mentioned his special thanks to Ian Lumley of An Taisce, Rory Sheehan, former project officer at the CANN project, The Hen Harrier Scheme, Tydavnet Group Water Scheme, Monaghan CoCo and Alan McCabe at the RBCT on the conservation grazing project on Slieve Beagh.
Pat’s Dexter Herd
Pat is passionate about the Dexter breed; their smaller size and hardy nature makes them perfect grazers for the hilly land around Sliabh Beagh. “If you put a Charolais cow up there, she’s going to trample the ground badly. There’s a fair depth of peat on the mountain and it suits the Dexters perfectly.” Pat’s home farm is situated on 60 acres of marginal land at the foothills of Sliabh Beagh. The herd consists of about 90 cattle and he operates a calf to beef system. His premium Dexter beef is sold direct to restaurants and local customers. Pat believes that the varied diet and the natural grazing conditions of the mountain produce a superior product to conventionally fattened beef, but he does acknowledge that their smaller size makes for smaller cuts. He is able to fatten his Dexter without supplemental feeding thanks to the rich diet on offer in Sliabh Beagh.
Low Input System
Pat operates a low impact grazing system on his own farm. No chemical fertilizer is used on the land and he’s a big believer in letting the natural seed bank of clover in the ground thrive. He believes that if farmers take action to protect their soil that this will produce ample forage for cattle and sheep. His only inputs are farmyard manure, a small amount of slurry and dry bedding. Given the spiraling costs of fertiliser and grains Pat is happy with the farming system he is perfecting. Pat’s farm is located in a curlew protected area so he doesn’t cut any grass until July/August. There is a traditional hay meadow on the farm of about 7 acres and 12 acres of broadleaf forestry planted 8 years ago. All of this combines to create great habitats for many birds and creatures. There are hares, badgers, grouse and pheasant on the land. Pat is passionate about low-impact, high nature value farming – “I see my farm as a habitat – and I farm in ways that encourage wildlife on the farm.” Like many farmers with an eye for nature, Pat does only necessary maintenance work on his hedgerows – he hasn’t cut them in 15 years.
Ambassador for Nature
Pat is an Ambassador for the Farming for Nature programme which recognises the special efforts Irish farmers are making to protect and enhance their local environment. Shirley Clerkin, Heritage Officer with Monaghan County Council nominated Pat for the award as she recognised Pat’s special efforts to engage in conservation and for his practical and can-do attitude. Shirley explained, “I nominated Pat because he is open minded about nature and for his willingness to try new methods of farming which can preserve the quality environment that is on Bragan. He’s a nature friendly farmer. He’s trying to find new ways where he can have a good farming enterprise, produce good meat with his livestock and also enable them have a quality life on the mountain.”
We look forward to seeing how the conservation programme continues in years to come. For anyone interested in ordering dexter meat directly from Pat, call him on 086 6372798.