News | 16 May 2023

Inspirational Ideas: Protecting farmland pollinators

Irish Operational Group promotes actions to support biodiversity within productive farming systems

Focus on biodiversity
Common carder bee (Bombus pascuorum) on devils bit
Credit: Saorla Kavanagh

The Protecting Farmland Pollinators Operational Group project encourages farmers in Ireland to make small changes on their farms which will make big differences to pollinators. These changes include providing habitats on their farms that will offer food, safety and shelter for wild bees and hoverflies and increase biodiversity in general.

Pollinators are essential for farmers growing insect pollinated crops, fruits and vegetables. However, there are many factors, including intensive specialised agriculture, which have led to a wide-scale loss of wild pollinators on farmland over the last fifty years. In Ireland, one third of their bee species are threatened with extinction (Fitzpatrick et al. (2007)). Improving agricultural systems to reverse the degradation of ecosystems would create significant and sustainable economic value and improvements to the health of the environment.

The National Biodiversity Data Centre, Operational Group leader, works to make biodiversity data and information more freely available to better understand and assist the protection of Ireland’s biodiversity. In 2015, they published the All-Ireland Pollinator Plan (AIPP), in 2019, they started the Protecting Farmland Pollinators Project which is part of the AIPP. Saorla Kavanagh, Operational Group project manager explains “Pollinators are basically a proxy for biodiversity. If you help pollinators, it will have knock-on effects and you’ll help biodiversity.” The project aimed to test different management practices on Irish farmland which can benefit pollinators. They created a scoring system which would help farmers to understand how pollinator-friendly or not their farm currently is, and to identify the type of simple, low-cost actions they could take to improve their score. Saorla says “It is not about making huge changes, but integrating small actions that will allow biodiversity to coexist within an already productive farming system.”

Within the Operational Group, the National Biodiversity Data Centre is working with 40 farmers, Saorla continues “what’s really useful within this project is that we’ve got a huge range of farms involved, beef, dairy, tillage and mixed with different farming intensities.” This allows them to test a range of pollinator measures across farmland of various types.

They have been examining the impact of pollinator measures on broader biodiversity as well as looking into their cost-effectiveness in the Irish farmed landscape. Measures include flowering hedgerows, pollinator-friendly trees, low to zero-pesticide inputs, flowering margins and flowers within productive fields. They carried out a survey in all participating farms, assessing existing pollinator habitats to determine an initial baseline farm-scale pollinator score. The whole-farm pollinator scoring system is used to quantify how pollinator-friendly an entire farm is. The scoring system supports farmers to make changes to their farms which improve habitats for pollinators, and wider biodiversity, without impacting productivity.

Throughout the project, the partners monitored all the participating farms, scoring them annually and providing regular advice to farmers on what simple actions they could take to improve their score. The partners also ran a results-based payment scheme for the farmers involved. Farmers are paid annually depending on their score and the amount and quality of habitat they maintain. The system encourages and assists farmers in attempts to improve their overall farm-scale pollinator score.

The farmers chose the actions to take on their farm. One arable farmer, for example, planted grass margins at the start of the project, and has noticed a great increase in biodiversity, most plants now are ones that he did not sow initially. Another tillage farmer has created a wildlife area where he planted many different species of trees as well as allowing a natural meadow to grow from the existing seed bank. He has seen a visible increase in moths, bees and other wildlife. Kim McCall, cattle farmer, planted hedgerows including a range of plants and trees of different heights. He says “Once planted, we walk away, we don’t do any maintenance after that. You can’t plant an eco-system, an eco-system has to evolve.” Many of the farmers have also expressed that the increase in biodiversity and pollinators has had an effect on their own well-being, making it more enjoyable to live and work on the farm, and that it creates a more calming working environment.

Over 3 years, 31 farmers have increased their pollinator points. They have all been provided with information on how they can improve their farm for pollinators, and they have taken action to do so.

In 2023, a guidance document on how to take action to protect pollinators on the farm will be produced. This document will contain evidence-based action sheets. It will provide real examples on how best to provide food, safety, and shelter for pollinators and wider biodiversity on the farm. This document will be produced in consultation with farmers. The project will also carry out a full critical review and future recommendations to roll out the system.

Saorla concludes “Although the money is a good incentive, it’s about the knowledge, farmers want to know what is on their farms and how they can help biodiversity and sustain their farms for future generations.”

Background information

The EU’s biodiversity strategy for 2030, part of the Green Deal, is a long-term plan to improve resilience, to protect and restore nature and biodiversity across Europe. Objectives include a target for 10% of agricultural land to incorporate landscape features or non-productive areas.

The EU CAP network Innovation & knowledge exchange | EIP-AGRI supports biodiversity.

  • In 2023 the Focus Group Enhancing the biodiversity on farmland through high-diversity landscape features answered the question on how farmers can create and maintain high-diversity landscape features (HDLF) that positively impact farmland biodiversity. The Focus Group report, including a state of play on the topic, research needs from practice and ideas for Operational Groups, will be published Autumn 2023.
  • On 22 May 2023, the International Day of Biodiversity, the Innovation & knowledge exchange | EIP-AGRI Support Facility published a thematic newsletter on biodiversity

Project information

Protecting Farmland Pollinators is an Operational Group funded by the Department of Agriculture, Food, and the Marine (DAFM) under the Rural Development Programme 2014-2020 (Ireland).

Project contact

Saorla Kavanagh

More information

Photo credits: Saorla Kavanagh