The Environmentally Sensitive Area (ESA) scheme was designed to help conserve biodiversity by paying farmers to adopt sympathetic land management practices. In Northern Ireland such schemes cost the tax payer £10 million a year and up to £350 million annually throughout the UK.
Conservation plans for vulnerable species, such as the Irish hare, rely on the schemes to deliver increase in populations by improving habitat quality.
Leading the research, Dr Neil Reid said: “The scheme did not work because it does not provide the specific mix of food and cover that hares need”.
“What’s worse is that the abundance of common agricultural pests such as rabbits and foxes is two-three times higher within ESAs than in the wider countryside.
“Aside from damage to farm businesses, the proliferation of rabbits might cause overgrazing of important plant communities, while more foxes can adversely affect ground-nesting birds and other species of conservation concern.”
The way forward, he believes, is to ensure that schemes take account of the specific needs of the species of concern.
“Our research shows that hares need a mixture of food and cover. Helping farmers to adopt these measures, together with sensitive grassland management, could help ensure buoyant populations of hares for the future.”
Lisa Mitchell | alfa
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