Drivers and Scenarios of Land Use Change in Ireland

Drivers and Scenarios of Land Use Change in Ireland

Background Paper

Drivers and Scenarios of Land Use Change in Ireland

Prepared by Teagasc

November 2014

Note: The views expressed in this background paper do not purport to reflect the views of the Minister or the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine



2.Agronomic and Environmental Drivers of Land Use

Current Land Use in Ireland

Agronomic Impact of Environmental Characteristics

3.Economic Drivers of Land Use

Land Markets

Land Structure and Demographic Drivers of Land Use Change

Policy Drivers of Land Mobility

Non-Agricultural Land Use Drivers

Lessons learned from New Zealand

4.Technological Drivers for Higher Returns to Land Use

Technological Drivers: Animals

Technological Drivers: Tillage and Grassland

Collaborative Farming and Land Access

5.Scenario Analysis

Sustainability Impact of Scenarios

Forestry Options to Reduce Net Carbon Emissions


1. Introduction

As a primarily animal based agricultural system in Ireland, agricultural production depends heavily upon the land base. The objective of this paper is to consider how to maximise the agricultural return from our land base while maintaining or enhancing our sustainability credentials by factoring the necessary behavioural, market, technological and policy drivers.

With this objective in mind, we structure the report in four parts

  • Agronomic and Environmental Drivers of Land Use
  • Economic Drivers of Land Use
  • Technological Drivers for Higher Returns to Land Use
  • Scenario Analysis

The underlying story in relation to potential is the ongoing differential return to land resulting in the different returns per hectare across different systems, where the income per hectare in Dairy is more than double that of most other systems. When subsidies are excluded, this difference is even greater.

As in the case of the sectors strategy to 2020 in Food Harvest 2020, the dominant policy driver is the abolition of Milk Quota. Providing markets can be found for increased output, an expanding Dairy sector in volume terms is likely to continue to be the dominant theme. Prior to the introduction of Milk Quota in 1984, there were 3 times more Dairy cows than Suckler cows. As a result of a variety of policy changes, suckler cow numbers increased and dairy cows decreased so that both were at parity from about 1998, with a subsequent decline in numbers to the present where there are about 1 million dairy and 1 million suckler cows.

Given the differential income between sectors, and given the abolition of quota, it seems inevitable that there will be a gradual drift in the relative size of the two industries, involving land use change. In terms of the Agricultural context we regard land use change not only as the movement of land between agricultural and non-agricultural uses such as Forestry or Settlement, but also in land use change between different systems; important given the different returns. Much of the focus of this report will be on intra-Agricultural land use changes. However despite income differences, there are many obstacles to substantial land use change. This paper considers some of these obstacles and the drivers under the four headings described above.

Figure 1. Land Use Drivers

Figure 1 details the relationship between different land use drivers. Land use such as Agriculture and Forestry, Urban and Infrastructure and un-utilisable land is determined by land use capability and infrastructure demand. Agricultural land use in terms of Grassland or Annual Cropping is determined by land use capability, local markets/infrastructure, knowledge/tradition and the need for high feed-value transportable animal feeds and high value food product substrates.

2. Agronomic and Environmental Drivers of Land Use

One of the drivers of land use and agricultural or forestry return from this land base are agronomic or environmental characteristics of the land. The soils, and the dominant agricultural activities that they support in any area, are influenced by a number of environmental factors, including:

  • Geology or sediments that soils are formed from
  • Climate, particularly rainfall and temperature
  • Position in the landscape (topography);

The structure of agricultural and forestry production is driven by the interaction between these environmental characteristics. Tillage land is found in the free-draining soils of the south-east, with intensive livestock farming on the limestone-rich lowland grasslands of the south and midlands and the more extensive hill farming and forestry on the acid and peat soils of the hills, mountains and western seaboard. Resulting from this interplay between environmental factors, we see the clear North-East South-West dividing line between more intensive/productive/higher income lands to the South and East and more extensive/lower income lands to the North and West (Commins and Frawley, 1996).

These broad landscape categories were originally defined in the General Soils Map of Ireland (Gardiner and Radford, 1980). Understanding the environmental factors that are important in the formation of soils provides an insight into the soil properties. These, in turn, can inform the understanding of the spatial distribution of agricultural production in terms of soil capacity, limitations and management and soil suitability for various enterprises.

Fealy and Creamer (2014), utilising the rich spatial data of Teagasc (including the new Soil information system), detail the spatial pattern of these characteristics. They highlight particular drivers of agronomic conditions resulting from environmental characteristics such as soil moisture deficit and grass growth days.

Climate and weather exert significant influence on agricultural production and by extension the decisions on land use and the spatial distribution of agriculture enterprises in Ireland. While the impact of major weather events such as drought or floods are generally obvious, the impact of smaller variations in climatic factors such as temperature, radiation and soils moisture are harder to see but significant nonetheless.

Ireland has a cool temperate western maritime climate with mild, moist summers and cool to moderately warm, cloudy summers. The main atmospheric influences are maritime air from the Atlantic and frequent eastwards passage of depressions. The prevailing winds are westerly to southwesterly. Mean annual temperatures range from 9.0 deg C in the northeast to over 10.6 deg c in the southwest. Crop growth is affected by the total amount of heat received during the growing season. This variable is measured in degree-days which are the total cumulative degrees by which mean daily temperature exceeds a crop specific threshold. The number of degree days above 6 deg C ranges from 1,400 in the north to 1,700 in the south. However even in the south the number of degree days above 10 deg C is only 700 which inhibits the growth of crops with high temperature requirements. While the influence of temperature is most directly evident in relation to crop growth it also affects animal production though direct impact of temperature on animals but also indirectly influencing fodder production.

Figure 2. Annual average rainfall

Although precipitation facilitates amongst the highest grass and crops yields in the world, excess precipitation can impact on grassland through the effect arising from excess soil moisture with reduced productivity and limitations to trafficability and though direct incidence of liver fluke on cattle and sheep and can result in ripening and harvesting difficulties and to disease risk for cereal crops arising from excess moisture.

Figure 3. Map grass growing days

Note: Isobars indicate days of grass growth

The configuration of geology, soil and topography in various climate zones across the country give rise to recognizable landscape types in Ireland. These can be classified into a number of primary landscape categories , or physiographic divisions, which were originally delineated by Gardiner and Radford (1980). These five major physiographic divisions are:

  • Mountain landscapes support shallow soils (Lithosols) mostly on steep slopes at > 500 m elevation. Wet soils (Groundwater and Surface-water Gleys) and acidic soils (Podzols) are present where slopes are less steep. Blanket Peat occurs on flat and gently undulating plateaus.
  • Hill landscapes occur at altitudes from 150 to 365 m with soils generally developed from shale, sandstone or occasionally granite. These soils are mainly acidic in nature, including Brown Podzolics and Brown Earths, and some Surface-water Gleys. Drumlin landscapes were formed during the most recent period of glacial advance. Drumlins are oval-shaped hills that stand out as an undulating landscape. They were formed from glacial deposits, sometimes with a rock core. These deposits vary in thickness; thin deposits over rock cores tend to have drier soils on the drumlin slopes such as Luvisols, Brown Earths and Brown Podzolics, whereas drumlins with thick glacial deposits have wetter soils (Surface-water Gleys). Wet soils (Groundwater Gleys and Peats) are usually found at the base of the Drumlin where water running off the slopes accumulates.
  • Flat to undulating lowland landscapes in limestone-dominated areas give rise to very shallow soils (Rendzinas) where limestone bedrock is close to the surface, but deeper soils (Luvisols and Surface-water Gleys) develop on the limestone-dominated glacial till that covers much of the limestone bedrock.
  • Acidic soil lowland landscapes are underlain by glacial deposits made up of sandstones and shales, or granite or igneous and metamorphic materials, from surrounding hill and mountains. These soils tend to be significantly more acidic than those underlain by limestone. Brown Earths and Brown Podzolics form in coarser till material and finer material (i.e. in shale areas) gives rise to wetter soils such as Surface-water and Groundwater Gleys.
  • Alluvial and Valley landscapes are found in small areas all over the country often at the base of the hills/mountains and on the floodplain and terraces of the major river valleys. The associated soils are mainly Groundwater Gleys, Alluvial Soils and Peat.

Figure 4. Physiographic Regions of Ireland


Current Land Use in Ireland

Green et al. (2014) quantifies the spatial distribution of the nature of the land use resulting from these environmental and agronomic conditions. They note in particular the challenges in doing this as a result of the fact that Ireland does not routinely develop maps of land use. Official estimates utilising LPIS, report that that in 2012, there are 382 kHa of crops and 3635 kHa of Pasture.[1] Utilisable agricultural area has been declining at about 24000 hectares per annum. Utilising CORINE data (See Figure 5), non-arable agricultural areas are the largest land cover are, accounting for 62.6% of the land cover, with wetlands accounting for 15.2%, followed by forestry and semi-natural areas at 12.9% and Arable at 4.7%.

Figure 5. Percentage of Level 1 land cover in Ireland for 2012.

Source: CORINE 2012 (unreleased data)

Specifically for forestry, the national forestry inventory estimates that 10.5% of the country is covered in forestry, while the Teagasc Hedgerow map finds that in 2006, scrub and hedgerow occupies 6.4% of the country.

There is a clear spatial pattern of Agriculture in Ireland. It is unsurprising that sectors with higher returns are on the lands with better agronomic potential such as Dairy in the South and West. Specialist sheep farms are concentrated in upland areas, where the land is less suitable for larger animals or tillage.

Beef production systems dominate land use in the Border, Midlands and West region, but as the most common farm type, have a strong presence in every region and land type.

The resulting economic scale is thus highly spatially correlated. Figure 6 describes the spatial structure of Agriculture by Family Farm Income generated by the Teagasc Simulation Model of the Irish Local Economy (SMILE). This model combines the 2010 Census of Agriculture with the 2010 Teagasc National Farm Survey to provide farm income information at a local scale. Figure 6 describes the pattern of market farming income from farming (excluding a return to labour or land) per hectare, direct payments per hectare and their sum family farm incomes per hectare. Market Income from farming reflects the location of dairy and tillage farming in the South and East. The spatial pattern of direct payments is less clear cut. Combining the two measures, market income drives the overall spatial pattern.


Figure 6. Spatial Pattern of Farm Incomes

(a) Market Family Farm Income per Ha / (b) Direct Payments per Ha / (c) Family Farm Income per Ha

Source Teagasc: SMILE-FARM Model 2010


Agronomic Impact of Environmental Characteristics

Given the share of pasture land within Agricultural areas and the importance of ruminant animals within the agricultural industry in Ireland, an important driver of the return from the land is the level of grass growth. Teagasc have currently developed a methodology utilising remote sensing technologies based upon satellite imagery to quantify relative grass growth cover across the country and over the year. Magnan et al. (2014) have undertaken a simple statistical analysis utilising a model between the environmental and agronomic characteristics described above and both grass cover at the start of the year and average grass growth in the Spring. They find that while agronomic drivers are important, human intervention and grass management is also very important.

Soil Functions as a driver

Schulte and O’Sullivan (2014) emphasise the importance of differential soil functions as a driver of land use and land use change. While increasing agricultural productivity is essential given global food security objectives, the agricultural industry is expected to meet increasingly stringent environmental objectives. These include targets set in the Nitrates Directive that sets out a regulatory framework for nutrient management; the Water Framework Directive that requires that water bodies be of good ecological status; the national biodiversity plan, through the designation of Natura 2000 sites. This means that there is an urgent and growing pressure on soils to deliver these multiple functions simultaneously. The EU Soil Thematic strategy outlines five functions delivered through agriculture:

  • Primary productivity
  • Water purification
  • Carbon storage
  • Habitat provision
  • Nutrient Cycling

All soils provide all soil functions, but different soils are better at some functions than others. Soil capacity depend upon land use and soil type. The challenge is to optimise the functions of soil so that primary productivity achieves balance with the other functions. It is difficult to increase production and carbon sequestration, water purification and biodiversity and nutrient cycling, all at the same time in each location. Instead, the aim of Functional Land Management is to enhance selective functions in specific places or soils to meet demands. Functional Land Management means that the use of land is managed in such a way that the total suite of soil functions is maximised, or – put colloquially – that ‘each soil performs those functions that it is good at’. This does not equate to legislative ‘zoning’ of land use. Instead, it would see the development of land use policies with the provision of mechanisms to ensure that actual land management decisions reflect policy.

3. Economic Drivers of Land Use

Agriculture involves the derivation of economic output from the environmental potential of the land outlined in the previous section. This report considers a number of economic and social drivers of land use and land use change. Hanrahan and Donnellan (2014) details macro-economic drivers of develops in Agricultural development and land use change. These include:

  • Income growth which will drive demand
  • Income and employment growth will have an impact on agricultural factor markets

Economic recovery and associated employment growth may reverse the decline in off-farm employment observed since the onset of the economic crisis. This will have the effect of enhancing the household economic sustainability of low margin farming systems. It is likely also to slow down incentives to land use change. Such a dynamic would represent an obstacle to the expansion of dairy land use in Ireland.

Land Markets

Land markets in Ireland, discussed in Hanrahan (2014) are characterised by

  • Extremely low land sales
  • Relatively high land prices
  • Moderate levels of leasing, however disproportionally of a short term nature
  • Excessive land fragmentation, with farms often comprising multiple parcels

Data from the Census of Agriculture (CoA) and the Farm Structures survey illustrates the importance of rented land in total Irish agricultural land use. In the 2010 CoA rented in land accounted for 18% of utilised agricultural area (UAA), 30% of farms rented in some land, while the average area rented-in in the State in 2010 was 19 hectares. The importance of rented-in land varied by farm type and by region with rented in land most important on tillage and dairy farms and least important in terms of share of land used on sheep farms. The proportion of agricultural land that is rented in is low in comparison with other EU countries and relatively stable over time.

Official data on Irish agricultural land rents and prices are currently not published by the CSO or Eurostat. In data from the series developed by Nunan and used by Nunan and Murphy and Roche and McQuinn (N-R-McQ) that has been extended using the survey of Irish agricultural land sales by Busteed is presented. The nominal prices (euro per ha) are deflated to 2013 prices using the CPI (2013=100). In Figure 7 the rental price data from the extended N-R-McQ dataset is also presented with the data from the Teagasc NFS on average rents paid used to extend the Nunan-Roche-McQuinn dataset.