Wednesday, 25 November 2020

Grassland conservation options in AEOS from a results-based perspective

In a 2017 post, we outlined the main results from a publication (Ó hUallacháin et al., 2016) that compared the vegetation in three different options for grassland conservation under the Irish agri-environment scheme (Agri-Environment Option Scheme, AEOS). Here, we outline the main results of that study, and develop it further with a more detailed interpretation of that work from the perspective of results-based approaches. Across the three grassland options in that study, the options had the effect of preferentially enrolling and financially rewarding lower-quality vegetation. We show how a results-based approach could better target, incentivise and reward the provision of higher-quality vegetation, and make a greater contribution to biodiversity conservation.

What did we study?

We conducted a snapshot survey of the plant community found in three different options for grassland conservation under the Irish agri-environment scheme, the Agri-Environmental Options Scheme (AEOS). We sampled the vegetation in 20 fields in each of three different grassland options (Traditional Hay Meadow (THM), Species Rich Grassland (SRG), and Natura) in AEOS (a total of 60 fields across 60 different farms). This gives us a good indication of the type of vegetation in the fields enrolled in these AEOS options at the time of our survey.

Why is this research of interest?

To our knowledge, this was the first published survey of grassland quality in different Irish agri-environment options. There is a widespread lack of measurement of the environmental impact of agri-environment schemes, despite the large amounts of budget allocated to such schemes. As an example of the prominence of such measures, the AE grassland measures were the three most popular measures in AEOS in 2013 (i.e. 51% of participants undertook SRG, 27% undertook THM and 19% undertook Natura measures on their farms) (cited in Ó hUallacháin et al. 2016). 

High participation rates, coupled with payment rates of €314/ ha for SRG and THM and €75/ha for Natura, resulted in €19.25 million, €6.31 million and €3.03 million, respectively, being spent on these three measures in 2013. More recently, these measures (incorporating slight changes in eligibility and management criteria) have been included in the Green Low-Carbon Agri-environment Scheme (GLAS, the Irish agri-environment scheme that succeeded AEOS).

What were the main results?

All of the sites met the eligibility criteria and management actions. 

Sites enrolled in the THM option had quite variable vegetation richness ranging from 17 to 47 plant species per site, with an average of 29 plant species per site (including 14 negative species, and 10 positive species). Thus, compared to a recently reseeded or highly fertilised grassland with low plant diversity, these sites certainly had more plant species. Sampled sites enrolled in the SRG option had an average of 34 species, 14 negative species, and 12 positive species. Sites in the Natura option had an average of 40 species, 5 negative species, and 17 positive species.

Our results showed that fields enrolled in the Natura option had highest vegetation quality, those in the Traditional Hay Meadow option had lowest vegetation quality, and those in the Species Rich Grassland option were intermediate (although closer in quality to THM than Natura). Vascular plants associated with THM and SRG were: Agrostis spp., Ranunculus repens, Poa trivialis, Lolium perenne, Trifolium repens, and Cynosurus cristatus. Species associated with Natura were, for example, Carex spp., Filipendula ulmaria, Galium palustre, Cardamina pratensis, Hydrocotyle vulgaris, Succisa pratensis.

What did we learn?

Although the various sites fulfilled their eligibility and management prescriptions, the lack of clarity in relation to specific, measurable objectives for each grassland measure made it difficult to determine whether objectives for these measures were being achieved.

This research provided a useful insight into the range of vegetation quality that one finds within and across the different grassland options. As a snapshot survey, this research did not allow us to track trends over time. Thus, we do not know whether the vegetation quality in sites selecting these options is increasing or decreasing over time – because of this, we simply do not know whether these options are helping to halt species decline in the sampled fields. If the fields retained the same management over a 5-year period, then we would be able to re-survey them and measure changes in vegetation quality over time, and we would be able know their effects on species (increasing or decreasing). On the basis of other research, however, where sites are relatively species-poor, we would not expect the management specified under the Traditional Hay Meadow and Species Rich Grassland options to *increase* species richness (or they would do so only very slowly).

For popular and over-subscribed agri-environment measures such as the grassland options, a method of targeting to prioritise the inclusion of higher quality vegetation would increase the cost-effectiveness *within* an option.

Re-interpreting these results from a results-based perspective

In the original article by Ó hUallacháin et al. (2016), there was a brief discussion of how a results-based approach could provide a financial incentive for improved environmental benefits – for example, linking more positive species indicators to higher payment. Here, we develop and discuss this perspective in more detail.

The original Fig. 3 in Ó hUallacháin et al. (2016) is presented below (Fig 1). In a non-metric multidimensional scaling plot of grassland composition, each of the symbols represents the vegetation (species and % cover) across the 60 sites. In general (as indicated above) the vegetation quality increased from left to right.

Fig. 1. Each point in this ordination diagram corresponds to the plant community in one of the 60 fields in our survey. The three AEOS grassland measures are colour-coded. Points that are located more to the right hand side are associated with plant species of higher nature conservation value. The THM points are furthest to the left, the Natura points are more associated with the right hand side, and the SRG points are intermediate.

Fitting an ellipsis (by eye) to cover the majority (ignoring outliers) of the sites within each of the groups resulted in the groups below (Fig. 2). Taking a vertical distribution of the extent of the ellipsis along axis 1 (shown for THM) resulted in the three horizontal bars at the bottom of the figure. The further to the right that these extend, the more they are associated with plant species of higher nature conservation value. While we accept that this may not be 100% accurate (fitting by eye), it is certainly sufficient to represent the primary pattern in all analyses of these data: sampled fields enrolled in the Natura option had highest vegetation quality, those in the THM had lowest vegetation quality, and those in SRG were intermediate.

Fig. 2. The three horizontal lines at the bottom of the diagram are used to represent the relative vegetation condition of the three AEOS grassland measures, with higher vegetation quality being represented by a distribution toward the right hand side of the diagram (which is associated with plant species of higher nature conservation value). 

Plotting the per hectare payment rates against the range of ecological condition of the sampled sites in each of the three options (Fig. 3) suggests a highly negative relationship: the grassland options with lowest quality provided the highest payment rates. In principle, the relative distribution of budgets across the three options could still have resulted in the total budget allocation across the three options showing a positive relationship with ecological condition. In practice, however, this did not occur (Fig. 4, 2013 data). In effect, across the three grassland measures, they seemed to preferentially enroll and financially reward lower-quality vegetation. 

Fig. 3. Relationship between the payment rates (per hectare) and ecological condition of each of the THM, SRG and Natura measures in AEOS. Ecological condition is estimated from the relative horizontal distribution of the horizontal bars that represent the three grassland measures, which is the same as in Fig. 2, but vertically displaced in relation to the payment rate.

Fig. 4. Relationship between the 2013 budgets and ecological condition of each of the THM, SRG and Natura measures in AEOS. 

 Under a results-based approach, and in alignment with the ‘Provider Gets’ principle, one would expect a general relationship more like that below (Fig. 5), in which greater provision of an environmental benefit is associated with a higher payment. Added benefits of this approach include:

  •          a justifiable payment to farmers who have already being farming in a way that delivers the highest vegetation quality. They would not have to do anything extra, but would be paid for their efforts in actively farming in an appropriate way to deliver vegetation quality of high nature conservation value.
  •          a unification of standards and approaches across three different grassland measures. Thus, for example, a single grassland measure could be designed to encompass the range of grassland quality encompassed by the THM, SRG and Natura measures, and a related payment structure that rewards and incentivises the attainment of higher levels of vegetation quality.
  •          Sites with lower vegetation quality would be incentivised to improve the vegetation quality of their selected grassland sites.
  •          There would be a very strong selection pressure that would result in both targeting of participation, and targeting of budget toward sites with a) high levels of vegetation quality, and b) higher potential for restoration from low to medium vegetation quality, and from medium to high vegetation quality.
  •          Relatively rapid assessment of the state of vegetation and demonstration of payment for higher environmental standards. In addition, surveys over time can help detect trends in improvement, decline or lack of change over time.
  •          More widespread understanding and appreciation of the biodiversity value of farmland (see examples in O’Rourke and Finn, 2020).


Fig. 5. Illustration of the possible relationship between payments and ecological condition under a results-based approach. We show the relative ecological condition of each of the THM, SRG and Natura measures in AEOS (jittered for clarity).

A results-based approach would, however, generate other requirements that include:

  • A need for improved clarity about the objectives and specific biodiversity indicators of vegetation quality. (This is very possible, with several example approaches already being developed e.g. the Burren Programme, AranLIFE, Hen Harrier Project.)
  • The development of indicators that reflect a scoring scheme, and the development of score-dependent payment rates. (See examples in O’Rourke and Finn, 2020).
  •  Improved availability of advisors and staff with ecological expertise to advise and assess the performance, and assist in scoring to determine the results-based payments. (See examples in O’Rourke and Finn, 2020).

Agri-environment schemes are complex, and difficult to design, to implement and to measure their environmental effectiveness. Across Europe, there has been a general lack of research on the effectiveness of these schemes (compared to the number of schemes, and scale of budget). It is clear that positive effects on biodiversity can be achieved, but require a high degree of careful design, implementation, and monitoring. It is only by doing this kind of research that we can learn to improve agri-environment schemes so that they deliver for farmers, and deliver for the environment. 

John Finn, Daire Ó hUallacháin, and Helen Sheridan


Ó hUallacháin, D., Finn, J.A., Keogh, B., Fritch, R., Sheridan, H. 2016. A comparison of grassland vegetation from three agri-environment conservation measures. Irish Journal of Agricultural and Food Research 55(2): 176-191.
O'Rourke, E and Finn, J.A.. 2020. Farming for nature: the role of results-based payments. Teagasc and NPWS. 

Some of our other related research related to agri-environment schemes
Finn, J.A. and Ó hUallacháin, D. 2012. A review of evidence for the environmental effectiveness of Ireland’s Rural Environmental Protection Scheme. Biology and Environment 112B: 1-24. An Open Access version of this paper is available from the Teagasc repository, T-Stór. Click here for access to this article (requires sign-in).
Matin, S., Sullivan, C.A., Ó hUallacháin, D., Meredith, D., Moran, J., Finn, J.A., Green, S. (2016) Predicted distribution of High Nature Value farmland in the Republic of Ireland. Journal of Maps
Primdahl, J., Vesterager, J.P., Finn, J.A., Vlahos, G. Kristensen, L. and Vejre, H. 2010. Current use of impact models for agri-environment schemes and potential for improvements of policy design and assessment. Journal of Environmental Management 91: 1245-1254.

Finn, J.A., Bartolini, F., Kurz, I., Bourke, D. and Viaggi D. 2009. Ex post environmental evaluation of agri-environmental schemes using experts’ judgements and multicriteria analysis. Journal of Environmental Planning and Management, 52: 717-737.

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