AranLIFE is an EU co-funded LIFE project working with farmers in Ireland on the management of semi-natural grassland habitats dependent on agriculture. The farming system, predominantly springcalving beef cows, has a low herd size, low stocking rate but with a high associated labour input. The poor economic returns and below average policy support payments are resulting in changes in management practices, including a cessation of farming, sub-optimal grazing rates and intensification. These changes have a negative impact on the overall condition of the grassland habitat. AranLIFE is working with 67 farmers to identify the range of management types and associated biodiversity on the farms. Forage analysis indicates that the nutrient content of the grasslands does not always meet the requirements of the grazing animal. This limits the type of suitable livestock systems, with the production of weanling calves and/or store cattle being the main choice. If the farming systems that created these desired habitats are not economically viable, then what are the future prospects of these and similar semi-natural rich grasslands and what support mechanisms are required to ensure their survival?
Traditional grazing regimes are likely to be the most effective and sustainable way to maintain the rich biodiversity of semi-natural grasslands within Annex I priority farmland habitats on the Aran Islands. A key question for the sustainable management of Aran pasturelands is does the available forage resource alone meet livestock nutritional requirements? We investigated the seasonal variability of forage mineral status, nutritional quality, annual aboveground net primary production, grassland utilisation and botanical composition on representative grasslands on 25 farms across the three Aran Islands over two years. Multivariate analysis identified two principal grassland communities: winter-grazed pastures and summergrazed pastures. Forage quality parameters exhibited community-dependant seasonal variation (e.g. crude protein ranged from 5 to 23% DM), and forage types were seasonally deficient in phosphorus, copper, zinc, selenium and cobalt. Yields ranged from 508 to 5,256 kg DM ha-1 year -1 , and sward species-richness ranged from 11 to 43 plants per 4 m2 . Results suggest mineral imbalances and deficiencies affect Aran forages, and winter-grazed forages alone do not meet the nutritional requirements of the suckler cow. This knowledge will be used to develop an optimal-grazing management model that promotes biodiversity and sustains livestock production on semi-natural grasslands.