Farming for Nature

Encouraging, supporting and rewarding farmers to act as 'first responders' to our biodiversity crisis​

Photo of Brendan Dunford
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Eligibility Criteria

  • I confirm that I am fully aware of the eligibility criteria and terms of the Act for Biodiversity Challenge and that I am eligible to apply.
  • I am 18 years old or older.

Initiative's representative name

Brendan Dunford

Initiative's representative date of birth

May 4th 1967

Initiative's representative gender

  • Man

Headquarters location: country

  • Ireland

Headquarters location: city

Old Schoolhouse, Carron, Ennis, Co. Clare, Ireland

Where are you making a difference?

Initially in the Burren region (230 sq miles, 330 farmers) Increasingly across Ireland (20 related projects, 2500+ farmers) At EU level, working to influence policy change and support pilot projects

Website or social media url(s) Social media links available on all of the websites above

Date Started


Project Stage

  • Scaling (expanding impact to many new places or in many new ways)

Yearly Budget : What is your current yearly budget for the initiative?

  • €1mil - €5mil

Organization Type

  • Nonprofit/NGO

1. Founding story: Share a story about the "Aha!" moment that led the founder(s) to get started or the story of how you saw the potential for this project to succeed.

While much attention is given to the damage caused by the wrong type of farming, there is much less focus on the positive contribution to biodiversity by the right type of farming. In the Burren, our research proved that farming is necessary to maintain and restore our orchid-rich grasslands, making farmers a potential conservation resource! Our challenge then became 'how do we motivate farmers to farm for nature?' From spending years working closely with farmers, we realized it wasn't just about the money (though this is critical) but also the need to tell farmers how, and why, they should 'farm for nature'. My 'Aha! moment' was realizing that we need farmers for nature and that, rather than criticize them, we need to support them.

2. The problem: What problem are you helping to solve?

On 50m ha of High Nature Value (HNV) farmland in the EU, farming activity is becoming increasingly polarised. Much of this land is now being either ‘over-farmed’ or ‘under-farmed’ relative to its natural capacity, leading to a loss of biodiversity and of the key ‘ecosystem services’ – pollination, fire and flood prevention etc - delivered on these huge repositories of nature and culture. By 2015, only 16% of habitats listed under EU Nature directives were in favourable condition, a huge problem.

3. Your solution: How are you working to solve this problem? Share your specific approach.

Our approach to persuading farmers to 'farm for nature' is three-pronged, focussing on the 'pocket head and heart': Pocket: for over 10 years we have successfully implemented a results-based approach to paying farmers for delivering positive biodiversity outcomes on their land. Our approach is simple: we conduct an annual assessment on every field in our project (1,700 fields) and, using 10 criteria, score them from 1-10 based on their environmental health. Higher scores yield higher payments, creating a market for biodiversity. If a farmer wants to improve his/her score, he/she has access to a fund to undertake remedial works to tackle environmental problems (e.g. invasive scrub, polluted water). We have now developed score cards for a range of habitats. Head: we have a local office to advise farmers on 'how-to' farm for nature and improve their income by doing so. We undertake targeted local research into low-impact supplementary feeding systems for grazers, methods to control invasive species etc and share findings. Heart: We have a wide range of very successful initiatives to encourage 'farming for nature' - incl. schools programmes, farming festivals, annual Awards etc.

4. Innovation: How are you innovating or using unique approaches to solve the problem?

We began our research 1998 and innovate across a range of relevant levels and themes: Policy/payments - we have helped influence agri-environment policy in Ireland and the EU by advocating successfully for result-based payments to farmers who deliver ecosystem services. Research - we co-created practical innovations with farmers to improve environmental outcomes - new feeding & grazing systems, control of invasive species etc. Products - we supported new local products (Burren beef, gates) and services (farmer-led walks for visitors). Social/Institutional - we created the Farming for Nature initiative and Burren Winterage festival to celebrate the role of farmers, and formed lasting partnerships between farmers and conservationists.

5. Collaboration: How does your initiative seek to bring key players together to preserve biodiversity?

All that we do is based on collaboration, helping optimise our impact. The Burren Programme began at a time of great conflict between farming and conservation interests -by outlining a common vision we were able to bring these, and other relevant interests, around the table to form collaborative relationships which continue today. The Burrenbeo Trust and Farming for Nature (FFN) project have collabrated widely to bridge the growing gap between an increasingly-urbanised public and increasingly-isolated farmers through walks, talks, media, festivals etc. We have collaborated with Government at Irish and EU level and with colleagues (researchers, policymakers and farmers) across the EU through a range of EU-funded research projects (, In future we want to collaborate with partners across Europe to promote FFN through policy advocacy, project support and farmer empowerment. We also want to collaborate more with industry to build a FFN brand and attract funding.

6. Impact: how has your project made a difference so far — in terms of both business outputs and social impact? How do you plan on measuring progress?

We've made a direct impact in the lives of the 330 farm families that we work with in the Burren Programme, the 700 members of the Burrenbeo Trust, our 30 Farming for Nature Ambassadors across Ireland, and on the several thousand people who have attended our events. We have indirectly impacted the lives of thousands of Irish and EU farm families through related projects. While our main focus is biodiversity, we have had a strong social and economic impact: - improved environmental outcomes: we have strong data over 10 years showing year on year improvements in environmental performance (biodiversity, water) in the Burren - improved social capital for farmers by reconnecting them with society through farming festivals and conferences, farmer-led walks, educational programmes etc - improved economic performance (avg. 6,500 euro p.a.) and opportunities for often-isolated farm families enabling them to continue living in their areas and maintaining the social fabric (schools etc)

7. Growth strategies: what are your main strategies for scaling your impact?

Currently we have a proven model (tested across a range of habitat types over 10 years), a strong reputation (winner of best EU LIFE Nature project of the past 25 years) and a wide network of EU contacts. But we need a lot of support to scale our impact. Our growth strategy is to collaborate with a range of existing networks, contacts and projects across EU-27 and get them to subscribe to, and support, our vision of 'Farming for Nature'. We will use this foundation to scale our impact by working to (1) advocate at EU and country level for policy change (2) develop farming for nature pilot projects across Europe and (3) build a network of farming for nature ambassadors and HNV learning areas to share practical knowledge.

8. Creating shared value: How does your initiative create value for society? Or different stakeholders?

Currently EU taxpayers pay billions of euro to protect nature through the Common Agricultural Policy. Yet nature is in crisis. Our 'farming for nature' approach guarantees taxpayers value for money as we have a results-based payment system meaning no delivery, no payment. This is also more equitable for farmers: those who deliver most, get most. Our initial focus is on High Nature Value farmland (c.50m ha) which are Europe's biggest repositories of nature and culture, areas which attract millions of visitors. These areas are also vital assets in our battle against climate change and biodiversity loss but are rapidly declining in condition. Investing in farming for nature is our best bet.

9. Financial sustainability plan: can you tell us about your plan to fund your project and how that plan will be sustainable in the short, medium, and long term?

Our current financial turnover is as follows: Burren Programme: Funded through EU and national funding (c. 2m p.a.) Burrenbeo Trust: Funded through memberships, donations, fundraising (c. 170k p.a.) Farming for Nature: Sponsored by Irish Govt bodies (c. 50k p.a.) It is our ambition to scale our impact to EU level. While there is adequate public funding to pay farmers to 'farm for nature' via the CAP, we will need funding to scale our impact as 'catalysers' to ensure that this funding delivers. In the short term, we will need additional funding of c.100k p.a. for Years 1-3. The potential sources range from public funding (EU, national governments) to private investment (though care will be needed if using industry partners).

10. Team: what is the current composition of your current team (types of roles, qualifications, full-time vs. part-time, board members, etc.), and how do you plan to evolve the team’s composition as the project grows?

I am involved in three projects: Burren Programme: 9 staff (7 FTEs) - scientists, administrators, field officers. Burrenbeo Trust: 4 staff (2.5 FTEs) - educators, administrators + Board (8 people). Farming for Nature: 1 Staff (0.5 FTEs). Co-ordination of activities, PR, event management. I also work closely with a range of key actors (researchers, project managers) who, I anticipate will form the advisory board for scaling this project. All staff/others have Masters or PhD degrees.

11. How did you hear about this challenge?

  • Ashoka page or contact

12. Connection to Biodiversity: How does your project directly contributes to preserving and/or restoring biodiversity? Please share data to support your answer.

The focus of all of our work, and the listed projects, is on enhancing farmland biodiversity. Our initial target area was the Burren - 75,000 acres of some of the best habitat in NW Europe, protected under EU law and containing 75% of all of Ireland's native flora. When we began the Burren Programme in 2010 the average 'field score' was 6.81. Today it stands at 7.59, an 11.56% improvement. This 'field score' is calculated every year across 1700 fields in the Burren by trained farm advisors. The 10 criteria which make up the score accurately reflect the condition of the habitats, soils and water sources present. Every year since the inception of the programme the average score has improved, this at a time when farmland biodiversity indicators across Ireland and Europe continue to decline. By improving the management of Burren habitats, a range of plant (orchids), invertebrate (bumblebees) and mammal species benefit, while farmers also receive higher payments for these positive outcomes.

13. Example: Please walk us through one or two concrete examples that show how your solution will solve the problem you’re trying to address.

There are c.50m hectares of 'High Nature Value farmland' in the EU, of enormous importance in reversing biodiversity loss as they are among the main (but declining) reservoirs for many EU habitats and species. The two following examples show how the Burren model could work. We are collaborating with farmers and scientists in the Montados region of Portugal. Here, the cork-oak woods and grasslands are of major cultural and ecological importance, but are in decline as farming changes. Working with the University of Evora and local farmers, a scoring system for these habitats is being developed so Montados farmers have an incentive to restore nature friendly farming to these areas. Closer to home, the Irish Hen Harrier project works with farmers to protect this endangered species. By paying farmers to manage nesting habitats, by controlling predators, and by convincing farmers of their role in saving this rare species, they are having major success in improving successful nesting.

14. Marketplace: Who else is addressing this problem in your environment? How does your proposed project differ from these other approaches?

All EU countries must have an Agri-Environment Scheme (AES) which farmers can avail of. Most of these are managed by Government Ministries and entail funding farmers to carry out certain actions considered to be good for the environment (biodiversity included). In Ireland alone such schemes are worth 250m euro annually but fail to deliver improvements to biodiversity. The reasons why vary: these AES are often 'top down' and fail to take account of different geographies and farming systems; they are activity-based rather than result-based and they are often resented by farmers as being too restrictive. Our approach is very targeted (to specific landscapes/habitats/species), localised and allows farmers a lot of flexibility as it pays on results generated. It is also very farmer-centered and aims to support the farmers 'pocket, head and heart'. While there are many other projects in farmland conservation, our approach is proven as high-impact and high-value-for-money.

15. Awards & Recognitions: What awards or recognitions, if any, has the project received so far?

The Burren was awarded the 'European Diploma for Protected Areas' by the Council of Europe in 2014, largely as a result of the work of the Burren Programme (BP). The BurrenLIFE project (precursor to the BP) was joint winner of the 'Best Ever LIFE Nature and Biodiversity Project in the EU' in 2017. Brendan Dunford was awarded an Honorary Degree by National University of Ireland (Galway) in 2019 for his work in supporting Farmland Biodiversity.

16. Financial Sustainability – funding breakdown: Please list a quick breakdown of your funding, indicating an estimated percentage that comes from each source.

The three projects I work with have the following funding sources: The Burren Programme - 100% funded from Public funds including: EU - Common Agriculture Policy, Irish Dept of Agriculture Food and the Marine (DAFM), The National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS). This funding includes funding for farmers (1.5m per annum) and funding for administration (c. 400k p.a. under contract) Farming for Nature Project - 100% funded from Public funds including: Bord Bia (Irish food marketing board), DAFM and NPWS The Burrenbeo Trust (Registered Charity): 25% funding from Grants; 25% funding from training and education services; 20% funding from membership; 20% funding from events income; 5% from donations, 5% from merchandise sales.

17. How do you plan to influence your field of work if you are a winner of the Act for Biodiversity Challenge? How would you invest the prize money to leverage your work?

Two things excite me about this Challenge: 1. The prestige value of winning this award would be immense. While there is significant public funding available to pay farmers to manage biodiversity on their land, the political will is not yet there. By winning this award we will have a great opportunity to promote our work across Europe - to Governments, NGOs, media and the wider public. This awareness is critical if we are to promote our model - which makes sense for biodiversity, for farmers and for taxpayers. 2. The prize money would make a huge difference. Much of the work around 'Farming for Nature' is done on a voluntary capacity (my full time job is managing the BP, all my work on FFN is voluntary). I would like to use the funding to do two things: firstly 'buy out' some of my own time - 1 day per week - which I could dedicate to scaling farming for nature and secondly, securing professional support to improve the branding and packaging (simpler messaging etc) around this idea.

18. Pitch-video (finalists only)

Evaluation results

11 evaluations so far


Yes, absolutely! - 54.5%

Yes/maybe - 36.4%

Maybe - 9.1%

Maybe/no - 0%

No - 0%


5 —Absolutely! It’s crystal clear how the solution is directly contributing to preserving and/or restoring biodiversity. - 54.5%

4—Yes, it establishes a clear connection to biodiversity. - 36.4%

3—Somewhat, the entry speaks to biodiversity but the direct impact is not well established and/or it is focused on a single species without considering its impact on the broader ecosystem - 9.1%

2—Not really, the connection to biodiversity is weak - 0%

1—No. The entry does not reference the solution’s impact on biodiversity. - 0%

3. 3) Is this entry IMPACTFUL?

5 -Yes, absolutely! - 54.5%

4- Yes, I think so. - 18.2%

3- Maybe. - 27.3%

2- Probably not. - 0%

1- No. - 0%

4. 4) Is this entry INNOVATIVE?

5 -Yes, absolutely! - 27.3%

4- Yes, I think so. - 54.5%

3- Maybe. - 18.2%

2- Probably not. - 0%

1- No. - 0%

5. 5) Is this entry VIABLE financially and operationally?

5 -Yes, absolutely! - 27.3%

4- Yes, I think so. - 54.5%

3- Maybe. - 18.2%

2- Probably not. - 0%

1- No. - 0%


5 -Yes, absolutely! - 54.5%

4- Yes, I think so. - 27.3%

3- Maybe. - 18.2%

2- Probably not. - 0%

1- No. - 0%

7. 7) Does this entry value COLLABORATION WITH OTHER STAKEHOLDERS in its approach?

5- Yes, absolutely! - 54.5%

4- Yes, I think ko. - 27.3%

3- Maybe. - 18.2%

2- Probably not. - 0%

1- No. - 0%

8. 8) FEEDBACK – Highlights

INNOVATION: You have a great understanding of the problem, have researched existing solutions, and have developed unique, thoughtful new solutions - 66.7%

IMPACT: You use specific numbers and evidence to describe what your project has achieved so far (or plan to achieve in the future) and you have a plan for measuring impact - 100%

GROWTH & LEADERSHIP POTENTIAL: You have a thoughtful plan for growth and your founding team has a strong combination of leadership and knowledge-based skills - 66.7%

VIABIBLITY: You have given a great deal of thought to not just the idea itself but how to make it work from a financial perspective in the present and future - 83.3%

CHANGEMAKING ACTIVATION: You value thinking around how to activate changemakers and empower them to innovate through your product or programming - 50%

POTENTIAL TO CREATE SHARED VALUE: You have a clearly defined plan on how to maximize shared value across multiple sectors and stakeholders - 83.3%

WRITING STYLE: Your writing style is concise, descriptive, clear, and specific - 0%

Other option - 0%

9. 9) FEEDBACK - Areas for Improvement

INNOVATION: Be more specific in your description of the research you have done into the past solutions to this problem and focus on how your solution is unique and innovative - 50%

IMPACT: Provide specific instances of your social impact and how you plan to measure impact – it may be helpful to describe the beneficiaries, products and programming, and provide evidence of (or plan for) how to measure impact - 50%

GROWTH & LEADERSHIP POTENTIAL: Your plan for growing the organization can benefit from more specifics. How can you round out the various skills of your current leadership team to make the project a long-term success? - 50%

VIABILITY: Make sure you have provided descriptive information about your financial sustainability plan. Where do the funds come from now and do you have a concrete plan for future sustainability? - 75%

POTENTIAL TO CREATE SHARED VALUE: your plan can benefit from more thought on how to create value for all stakeholders, not just immediate beneficiaries - 75%

WRITING STYLE: Try to be more concise, descriptive, clear, and specific. Avoid jargon. - 0%

Nothing – I thought everything was great! - 100%

CHANGEMAKING ACTIVATION: Try to provide more insights into how you are activating changemakers and empowering them to innovate through your product or programming - 25%

Other option - 0%

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Join the conversation:

Photo of Maeve

Because you focus specifically on Biodiversity, highlighting your approaches and examples at a conference or other venue in the United States might help raise the profile of Biodiversity here. I do not believe Biodiversity has as much "status" in the U.S. as it seems to in parts of Europe, in government policy or public awareness.

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