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Matt O'Keeffe

Growing nettles and other land uses

Should landowners be entitled to use their land as they see fit?

The freedom to farm or utilise land as one pleases has become far more restrictive than it was for previous generations. Or has it?
There are few enough people who remember that Irish farmers were forced to grow grain crops during World War II under the Compulsory Tillage Order to ensure enough grain for self-sufficiency and particularly wheat to meet our bread needs. The bread that wheat produced, for the most part, would not be of an acceptable colour or texture to satisfy the delicate palates of today’s consumers. So, restrictions imposed on land use by law, by government diktat, by societal demands or by economic necessity are nothing new. Some laws, at this stage, are observed more in the breach than observance. The Noxious Weeds Act of 1936 lists ragwort, thistles and docks as weeds to be curtailed. How times have changed. All three are common features of the Irish landscape, both urban and rural. Of the three, the poisonous ragwort poses the greatest threat to livestock. The other two may be somewhat unsightly in some people’s eyes, depending on your perspective, but pose little danger. To others, these plants are now regarded as critically important to the balance of nature and the promotion of biodiversity. Nettles, too, it appears, should be encouraged both in pasture and hedgerows. Nettles offer, it is said, a valuable source of nutrition to butterflies and other insects. There are those who proclaim the value of nettles, especially young, spring-grown nettles, in the human diet as a source of essential elements, most notably iron, provided one does not boil the goodness out of it. Nettle soup, too, is highly regarded in some culinary circles. Perhaps this represents an economic opportunity for landowners. 

There is no arguing that using land for food or for electrical energy production is a debate to be had


What price for a kilo of nettles? Or should nettles be sold by the bunch or by the individual stem? These are the issues that must be sorted before nettles can become an integral part of our daily consumption of ‘greens’, as well as a novel crop option for Irish food producers. 

After that diversion, I come back to my main theme. How free are landowners to use land as they wish? The latest land use options provide some reference points. We are increasingly familiar with wind turbines being planted on land around the country. Indeed, at the current rate of planting, there will be a turbine to view by everyone living in the countryside in no time at all. Solar panels are another bright addition to our rural landscape. Previously an inhabitant of desert and suchlike parched regions, the PV solar panel is becoming increasingly commonplace in our verdant pastures. I think they are more appropriate for rooftops than green pastures and, at the very least, there is no arguing that using land for food or for electrical energy production is a debate to be had.
Meanwhile the Environmental Protection Agency is promoting the planting of up to 40,000 hectares of forestry, annually. Twenty-five years of that would account for a lot of land. It would double our afforestation from 11 per cent of our land area to 22 per cent, while reducing the area available for other purposes by one million hectares. We have 4.4 million hectares of agricultural land currently, so almost one quarter would need to be reallocated to trees. Add in rewetting and rewilding, solar and wind farms, and 30,000 new houses every year, and it will be a lot easier to decide on how we use the remaining few hectares.