Holistic Management – How Farming Can Reverse Climate Change

Holistic Management – How Farming Can Reverse Climate Change


Lahinch taking a pounding during Storm Eleanor in January 2017 – Photo: © Pat Flynn 2017

By Féidhlim Harty

Lahinch has seen its share of climate change impacts. Recent years have seen a number of significant storm events crash onto the seaside village. Costs of storm damage in Lahinch are estimated at c.€6m; the largest single cost along the badly hit Clare coast. But what’s at the root of our changing climate?

Global climate weirding, as it has been quite accurately termed, could simply be referred to as a fever being thrown up by a warming planet. The trapped gasses in the atmosphere hold in the sun’s heat and even modest warming is causing major hiccoughs to global climatic systems. Even here in Ireland, where we have one of the most forgiving climates in the world, we’ve seen longer droughts, more extensive floods, fiercer storms and extremes of both hot and cold weather.

The EPA lists energy, transport and agriculture as the three main causes of climate change in the Irish context. What does that mean in practice? It means our energy generation, modes of transport and the growing of food are all heavily dependant on fossil fuels. That can change quite quickly if we choose to shift to renewable suppliers of electricity and if we invest carefully in public transport, cycle infrastructure and the like. Our farming methods yield vast quantities of greenhouse gasses; from high energy-input nitrogen fertiliser manufacture to nitrous oxide emissions from nitrogen fertiliser use itself, to disruptions of the soil carbon cycle. This is something Ireland has been slow to change because of the importance of agriculture to our economy.

Now here’s the thing. We can reduce the energy we need by insulating our homes. We can reduce our food miles by buying produce that is grown in Ireland or at least in Europe. We can cut back hugely in these areas and make big savings in our overall carbon footprint. But in agriculture we can take a quantum leap further than that.

With a shift in management, our whole farming sector can not only become carbon neutral, but carbon negative. We can sequester carbon in our soils as part of our day to day farming practice. Rather than being the dirty neighbour in the EU with our farting livestock, we can shift that around and use farm animals as a management tool to build soils, fix carbon, improve both drainage and water holding capacity in our fields, increase biodiversity and produce more nutritious food and healthier farmers.

Photo: © Pat Flynn 2017

This is the basis of the recent training course delivered in Lahinch by English company 3LM, the UK and Ireland hub of the Savory Institute. Worldwide, the Savory Institute have set themselves the ambitious goal of seeking to influence the management of 1bn hectares of land by 2025 through 100 such global hubs. The direct benefits are carbon sequestration to mitigate climate change, greater food security, regulation of water flows and quality within the wider catchment and reducing poverty by providing farmers with practical tools to create financially viable farms at a time when agriculture is struggling everywhere.

Holistic management examines the farm or landscape by looking at the full ecosystem of the area being reviewed. Specifically through examining the water cycles, mineral cycles, community dynamics of biodiversity and energy flow from sunlight to crops. With this holistic appraisal, taking the whole of the farm as a natural unit within its environment, we can gain greater insight into how best to manage the land. Perhaps the most striking insight of the process is an assessment of the brittleness scale of the land; how susceptible it is to drought events and their impacts. Here in Ireland we are, predictably enough, in a non-brittle landscape, where rainfall is abundant, soil organisms are active and most of the ecological indicators are generally conducive to soil health. If the soil is over stretched, a good rest will mend a lot of ills.

Recent years have seen a number of significant storm events crash onto the Clare coast – Photo: © Pat Flynn 2019

By contrast however, rest has the opposite effect on arid, brittle landscapes. These habitats often require a careful balance of large grazing herbivores, and the predators that keep them bunched tightly together and always on the move. In such circumstances, they graze tightly, manure abundantly, break up the soil cap to let in water and seeds, and then often leave that area alone for six to twelve months before revisiting it again. This allows time for seeds to sprout, grasses and other plants to thicken up, and the area to recover before the next graze-disturb-recover cycle.

It seems that the time that the grassland is exposed to livestock has more impact than the numbers of animals per se. Thus by mimicking natural grassland habitats and corralling animals in smaller paddocks for only a brief time, greater overall stocking rates can be achieved than by continuous grazing over larger areas. This copies the impact of wolves or lions which keep the grazers on the alert and bunched together in tight herds.

Which farmer wouldn’t want to up the stocking rate, improve the local environment, sequester atmospheric carbon and have healthier soils? Which indeed. Perhaps we will be able to say in 10 years time that our major climate impacts used to be agriculture, transport and energy. In a decade perhaps we’ll be able to say that we’ve reached carbon neutral in transport and energy, but it’s our agriculture where we make the greatest gains with actually reversing climate change.

*Féidhlim Harty is director of FH Wetland Systems environmental consultancy and author of Permaculture Guide to Reed Beds and other books on making practical environmental changes in our lives.