The Dept. of Agriculture have recently published their proposals for ensuring that commonage lands remain eligible for direct payments in the next round of the Common Agricultural Policy. The background to this move includes the impact of the significant changes in the structure of the CAP (Common Agricultural Policy) after 2014. The EU Commission is proposing that direct payments should progressively converge and payments to large beneficiaries be subject to progressive capping. Within Ireland this proposal would have effect of reducing the value of the single payment scheme entitlements received by large farms principally in the south east and increasing the value of those held by farmers in the west of Ireland. While the extent of this change is still under negotiation it is likely that western farmers and in particular Suckler Cow and Sheep enterprises could be significant beneficiaries.
The present CAP is based on a two pillar structure. In simple terms Pillar I pays for the Single Payment Scheme, Pillar II is for Rural development and co-finances the agri-environment schemes, e.g. REPS/ AEOS along with the Dis-Advantaged areas scheme. At the moment most commonage farmers payments are dominated by REPS/AEOS and the Dis-advantaged area payment with the Single Payment Scheme a poor third in many cases. This is not the case on a national level where the Single Payment Scheme is by far the most important source of direct payments. Even a partial implementation of the EU Commission proposals will lead to a change both in the size of direct payments to commonage farmers but also in makeup of these payments. In particular it is likely that the Single Payments Scheme or its successor will become more important to the commonage farmer. One benefit of this is that this payment is completely financed by the EU and so is not exposed to budget cuts in Ireland.
While the new CAP offers significant opportunities for commonage farmers, the key challenge is to ensure that the land on which the payments could be drawn down remains eligible. An understanding of the purpose and objectives of these payments is central to appreciating the impact on current practices. A key objective of EU funding is to support farmers in adopting and maintaining farming systems and practices that are favourable to environmental and climate objectives. The direct payments are in part, a payment for the provision of these public goods, i.e. land in GAEC (Good Agricultural and Environmental Condition). The difficulty for commonage farmers is that if these public goods are not provided then how can they be paid for?
In a shared grazing resource like commonage, the primary issue is whether the public goods, i.e. land in GAEC that are being paid for by direct payments are being provided or not. The issue of who is responsible for a failure to provide them is very much a secondary issue and one primarily for the landowners themselves. The challenge therefore for both the Dept of Agriculture and for commonage shareholders is to ensure that as much commonage land as possible remains eligible for direct payments.
The Dept. of Agricultures response to this challenge is to introduce a requirement for Collective Agreements on stock numbers between the shareholders on each commonage. This appears to solve the eligibility issue; the maintenance of land in GAEC then becomes an ongoing requirement for the shareholders themselves based on the implementation of these agreements. A lead in time of two years has been proposed by the Dept of Agriculture to achieve the required stock numbers. At this point it is important to appreciate that the situation in every commonage is different, some commonages are already in GAEC, other suffer from under grazing, some are still damaged by overgrazing. In addition the farmers involved in each commonage are different; they have different enterprises and different views on how the commonage should be managed. Considering all of these differences it is clear that imposing a one size fits all solution is not realistic and that the only way to accommodate the wide range of situations is to involve the shareholders themselves in the decisions affecting their commonage.
The proposals made by the Dept of Agriculture are radical and represent the greatest change to commonage management since the introduction of the commonage framework plans. Like the situation in the late 1990’s action is required in order to assure the continued eligibility of commonage for direct payments. Unlike the commonage framework plans which were imposed from above, a large part of the current proposals involve devolving decision making down to the shareholders of each commonage. The shareholders of the commonage perform this role by participating in a collective agreement. The objective is to ensure that the land is maintained in GAEC and so secure continued eligibility for payments. To assist in this process the Dept of Agriculture and the NPWS have calculated maximum and minimum stocking levels for each commonage land parcel. This was based on the stock carrying capacity of the habitats involved, their condition when the commonage framework plans were produced and the expected recovery in condition since then. The expected recovery was based on that observed during a wide ranging monitoring program over the past 10 years. Where the shareholders believe that these figures are incorrect they can be appealed.
While the Dept of Agriculture have made these maximum and minimum figures available it is for the shareholders through their collective agreement to decide on how a stock number between the maximum and the minimum can be best achieved.
The changes that are underway are dramatic but they offer the potential for increased payments which will be secured until 2020 along with an opportunity in some commonages for active farmers to develop their enterprise. Commonage is a shared resource, by co-operating with each other; farmers can ensure that they share in the benefits from this resource. While the process will present difficulties, it would be a mistake to dwell on problems elsewhere or mistakes made in the past. In difficult times making use of the opportunity presented, getting as good a deal as possible particularly in respect of the lead in time and addressing local issues by considering an appeal appear to be better strategies.
The collective agreement should not be seen as a form filling exercise, it is not an end in itself but a process by which each individual farmer can ensure that;
The commonage remains eligible for payment.
The commitment in terms of stock to be grazed on the commonage is workable and achievable in the context of the overall farm enterprise and their own personal plans and circumstances.
The agreement cannot be considered as something that is written in stone, for if it is to be workable it must be reviewed by the farmers concerned on a regular basis. For example if because of a change in personal circumstances Farmer A is no longer able to continue to meet his commitment to keep 100 ewes on the commonage then the other shareholders must be able to review their agreement to see how it can be adapted to the new situation. Likewise if a dormant shareholder wishes to commence farming then the agreement must be capable of being amended to accommodate him. In essence the collective agreement is establishing a system of community based governance of a shared resource. For many this may be a difficult process and particularly in commonages with very large numbers of shareholders, the negotiation of a workable agreement will be challenging. To assist in this process the Dept. of Agriculture requires that a farm advisor with experience in commonage issues facilitates this agreement. The advisors role is to facilitate the negotiation process in a manner that ensures fair consideration for all shareholders and reduces the risk of a breakdown in negotiations.
The importance of achieving a workable agreement cannot be underestimated as all direct payments on the commonage from 2014 to 2020 will depend on it. There are two principal issues involved, first to ensure that the commonage remains eligible for payment, this is dependent on putting a collective agreement in place and secondly ensuring that the commonage remains in GAEC (Good Agricultural and Environmental Condition) this is achieved by maintaining an appropriate stocking regime in the years ahead. To put these issues into context, a commonage with 300Ha of land eligible for payment could receive upwards of €70 per Ha from Pillar I funding, approx €100 per Ha from Pillar II (assuming that the Dis-advantaged Areas Scheme is maintained) and approx €75 per Ha from an agri-environment scheme (current AEOS rate of payment). This represents total direct payments of €245 per Ha per year for 7 years or a total of €514,000. While the exact amounts are dependent on the final agreement on the Common Agricultural Policy, it is clear that very large sums of money are involved. The indications are that even a partial break with the historical model will result in an increase in payments for commonage farmers. While the individual farmer has no input into the negotiations of the new Common Agricultural Policy he does have an input into ensuring that his land remains eligible to benefit from it. Achieving this with commonage land is dependent on the successful negotiation and implementation of a collective agreement.
Commonage farmers will receive a letter from the Dept. of Agriculture in the coming weeks which will inform them of the maximum and minimum stock numbers for each commonage land parcel. This letter will also include the names of all those who are currently claiming payments on each commonage parcel. While there is a lead in time of two years, this is to provide some opportunity for farmers to adjust the size and composition of their flocks/ herds. It would be a mistake to assume that the negotiation of a collective agreement can be left to 2014 as this would carry enormous risks, negotiations would have to take place with a looming deadline, experienced advisors may be unavailable and there would be no time for stock adjustments to be made. For these reasons significant progress will have to be made on most commonages in 2013.
Adapting to the new system requires both group and individual action. As a group the first step for active shareholders is to consider the maximum and minimum stock numbers for their commonage and to decide if an appeal is warranted. Such a decision should be based not just on the balance between current numbers and those proposed but also on the condition of the commonage. For example, if a commonage is under grazed, an appeal aimed at lowering the minimum stock numbers to suit current flock sizes is unlikely to be successful and even if it did succeed, it may well prove counterproductive if the land fails to achieve GAEC status (Good Agricultural and Environmental Condition). If the shareholders feel that an appeal is required they should contact a farm advisor for details as to how this can be done. A decision on whether to make an appeal or not should be made before Christmas as the collective agreement will inevitably be delayed pending the outcome of a review. The second stage is to engage a farm advisor for the purpose of facilitating an agreement. Only one advisor can be involved in a given commonage, ideally one with a background in commonage management.
For the individual farmer the key issues are:
To discuss the general issues involved with their fellow shareholders. In particular the issue of whether an appeal is required and on engaging a commonage specialist to facilitate and agreement.
Consider how the management of the commonage fits in with their own farm enterprise and discuss any issues with the agreement facilitator and if appropriate with fellow shareholders.
Be aware that to remain eligible for payments after 2014 they must keep their share of the minimum stock required for the commonage. For example if the minimum stock number is 100 ewes and a farmer has a 1/10th share then he must keep a minimum of 10 ewes. The maximum number for each farmer will be determined as part of the collective agreement. Farmers who do not currently graze stock on the commonage will have to consider how they can participate in the collective agreement. As things stand they will not be eligible to claim payments on the commonage from 2014 onwards if they are not actively farming it.
Remember that only certain breeds of cattle and sheep will be considered as contributing to the stocking requirement. These are Blackface Mountain and Cheviot sheep, Aberdeen Angus, Hereford, Kerry, Irish Moiled, Dexter, Shorthorn, Galloway, and Highland. It is anticipated that Connemara Ponies will be added to the list. Farmers considering purchasing bovine replacements should consider the approved breeds when purchasing animal. This is particularly important if their herd is currently composed of continental breeds such as Limousin or Charolais.
The November 30th date refers only to AEOS applicants. AEOS plans produced for commonage farmers will have a minimum and maximum stock number for the farmer. While the minimum number must be maintained, the maximum number in the AEOS application is provisional and will be superseded by the Collective Agreement.
Ensure that their SPS applications are made within the application periods in 2013 and 2014.
While many farmers are concerned that within a collective agreement they will be exposed to penalties for the actions of their neighbour, the opposite is in fact the case. Without a collective agreement the action of the neighbour who abuses the shared property threatens the eligibility of the commonage for any payment at all. While within an agreement the neighbour will have made a commitment to his fellow shareholders and to the Dept of Agriculture and is exposed to penalties if he fails to live up to his commitment. The agreement also serves to protect the shareholders interests by ensuring eligibility for payment and providing a mechanism for co-ordinated responses to issues affecting their shared asset.
The negotiation of a collective agreement will be a key event for all commonage farmers, it should not be rushed and the issues involved must be carefully considered. There are those who will be ready to point out the difficulties and the reasons why the process will not work. However to state that agreement between farmers is impossible is an empty gesture. Of course there will be local difficulties and perhaps in some situations it will not be possible to overcome these but that is not an argument not to try to reach a consensus. In the vast majority of cases agreement is possible, not everyone will get everything they want but they can take action to secure their payments, to ensure their views are heard and to plan for their farms future.
There are serious issues with the details of the proposals where perhaps there is room to achieve a better deal, the lead in time is a case in point. However rejecting change does not present a solution and does the farming community no service. It is in the interest of all concerned that this process is successful, there is too much at stake to consider failure as an option.
In a set of clarifications for the AEOS 3 scheme circulated to planners by the Dept. of Agriculture, Food and the Marine have stated that the details for the maximum and minimum numbers of stock for each commonage land parcel will be available next week. The information will be made available on the SPS iNet system.
They have also declared that the sheep or cattle required to make up the required stock levels must be from breeds suitable for grazing the commonage. They have defined suitable eligible breeds of sheep as Blackface Mountain, Cheviot or a cross between these breeds. For cattle the suitable breeds are Aberdeen Angus, Hereford, Kerry, Irish Maol, Dexter, and Shorthorn, Galloway or Highland cattle or a cross between these breeds.
At a seminar for farm advisors in Castlebar on Monday October 22nd the Dept. of Agriculture, Food and the Marine announced that permitted stocking rates for each commonage parcel would be available on line within days. Commonage farmers will have to sign up to a collective agreement to ensure adequate stocking on commonage parcels. The minimum number of stock that must be kept by an individual farmer will be the fraction of the commonage that he has declared in 2012 multiplied by the minimum stock number for the commonage parcel. The maximum number will vary depending on the collective agreement between the shareholders.
The enclosed land held by the farmer is not considered in this process, the objective being to ensure that the planned stock numbers are grazed on the commonage for most of the year. The stock numbers will be expressed as ewe equivalents but farmers can meet their obligations with a range of traditional breeds of cattle and sheep. Bringing sheep down for tupping and lambing will be permitted. However keeping lowland breeds such as Texels or Suffolk on enclosed land will not satisfy the commitment to maintain stock numbers.
The collective agreement will be facilitated by a planner. All farmers in a given commonage must use the same planner for this purpose.
The scheme has a
budget of €20,000,000 which will provide funding for an estimated 6,000
participants. If the scheme is
oversubscribed priority will be given to the following groups.
1) Farmers with more than 0.5 Ha of SAC
or SPA land.
2) Farmers with more than 0.5 Ha of
If places remain
after all of these applicants have been accommodated they will issue to farmers
who had been in REPS. Successful
applicants will receive a start date probably in April of 2013; their contract
period will run until the 31/12/2017. In
the event that an alternative scheme becomes available in 2014 applicants will
be able to leave AEOS without penalty to join a new scheme. This commitment by the Dept. of Agriculture,
Food and the Marine is important as it ensures that farmers are not trapped in
a scheme if a more suitable alternative exists.
for payment each year will be that years SPS application and payments should
issue in November/ December each year.
themselves are similar to previous schemes; the biggest change is in the
treatment of commonage. Planners will
have to access a commonage database to obtain maximum and minimum stocking
densities for each commonage and apply this to the individual farmer based on
the size of his share. The requirements
for each option are described in scheme specifications which can be downloaded
from this website.
AEOS Seminars will be held for farm planners on Monday October 22nd and Tuesday October 23rd in Castlebar and Mullingar. The scheme will open for applications immediately after these seminars and will close at the end of November. The specifications for the new scheme are expected to be available by the end of this week. First indications are that they will not differ significantly from the AEOS 2 scheme.
One of the features of the current system of direct payments to farmers is that even in cases of shared ownership the payments have been made directly to the individual. This has created a situation where the individual farmer makes a commitment to maintain lands in GAEC, the Dept. of Agriculture pays him for this and yet due to the actions of a third party (not necessarily a shareholder or even a farmer) the land is not actually in good condition. There is a conflict between the individual making a commitment in respect of the management of land that is jointly owned. This creates potential difficulties for all concerned, the Department of Agriculture are concerned with the consequences for all commonages, if an EU audit finds a difficulty, the compliant farmer risks a reduction on his payments if the situation continues and yet may feel powerless to influence it. Even farmers in other commonages which are in good condition have concerns that the eligibility of all commonages may be threatened by issues arising elsewhere.
Commonage governance in the first instance is likely to be restricted to stocking issues but having a system for making joint decisions on matters of common interest can benefit shareholders in many ways. For example;
The Dept. of Agriculture have been steadily reducing the reference area for commonages by excluding areas for roads, turbary, lakes, bare rock, scrub etc. In the bulk of cases this is done from a study of aerial photographs. In many cases the deductions are in error but if they are accepted by even one shareholder then the Dept. of Agriculture will push them through. Their insistence that the same ref area has to apply to all claimants on a land parcel means that only as a group can the shareholders hope to resist these deductions.
Tackling the abuse of their joint property by third parties with no right to the commonage. For an individual the task of dealing with third parties causing damage by trespass, grazing of stock without permission, illegal dumping or encroachment can be very difficult. As a group the shareholders can decide on what course of action is appropriate, get whatever advice is required and take the necessary action.
Realising the value of their joint property for non agricultural purposes. Many commonages have value for non agricultural purposes, for example as sites for wind farms, for recreational use and for development of sites etc. These are only viable options if they are supported by all of the shareholders. Having a structure in place that can make decisions on these issues creates opportunities that would not otherwise exist.
In the future there is the possibility of a commonage scheme. In other countries such as Scotland and England it is the shareholders as a group or an association that joins the scheme and not the farmers as individuals. The association receives the payments and then decides on what to do with the funds. They may for example decide to invest in the property by paying for fencing or animal handling facilities or they may opt to divide the money between the shareholders. The decision is theirs. It is quite likely that the authorities in Ireland may introduce a similar scheme here in the future.
In many other countries systems of commonage governance have been in place for many years. In Ireland informal systems existed in the past but they have broken down over the years. What shareholders need is to establish a mechanism among themselves so that they can empower themselves to protect their payments and manage their assets.
This agreement is first and foremost between the shareholders; however it must be workable and must take into account the different perspective that each shareholder has. Just as every farm is different, every farmer is different and their individual concerns, objectives and plans must be reflected in this agreement if it is to work. A commonage specialist can assist by working with each shareholder individually to identify the issues and produce a draft agreement. This draft can then be refined by negotiating with the individual farmers the concerns of others in a manner that respects each individual’s privacy. An honest broker can facilitate the shareholders to come to a common position without any risk of direct confrontation between rival interests. This process may be slow and not everybody will get everything they want but everyone can be assured that their interests will be reflected in the final draft that is put to the shareholders for approval.
A workable agreement will have to have the support of the shareholders, it will have to have arrangements for how issues will be decided, disputes resolved, expenses met and on how income will be divided. It will allow the shareholders to be flexible in response to changing circumstances and to protect their shared asset. Only a skilled commonage specialist can assist farmers in developing such a system. BY doing this we can empower the shareholders by negotiating an agreement that is workable for the farmers and acceptable to the Dept. of Agriculture.
The development of agriculture resulted in the progressive enclosure of land. Before the process of land reform began in the 19th century, tenants on large estates rented their farm from a landlord. The farm consisted of a portion of enclosed land and permission to use nearby unenclosed land belonging to the landlord. In many areas access to the unenclosed land, or “hill” was a vital component of the farming economy as it permitted the keeping of small numbers of livestock. These animals were often the only cash income available to the tenant and were used to pay the rent and to purchase items that could not be produced on the farm.
Once the land commission began the process of breaking up the large estates the use of the unenclosed land had to be formalised. In most cases this was done by allocating shares in the commonage to the former tenants. The term “tenants “has survived in many localities when people refer to the shareholders in a given commonage. This is a folk memory of the land tenure situation prior to the breakup of the big estates.
Introduction of Direct Payments
Large increases in sheep numbers from the 1970’s onwards had impacts on how commonages were managed. The introduction of ewe premium in particular contributed to a rapid increase in stock numbers without any reference to the size of the holding. In many cases this led to overgrazing of the commonage with consequent damage to vegetation, this was reflected in the loss of heather and an increase in inedible species such as Mat Grass and Heath Rush. In severe cases erosion of peat and soil also occurred. Another consequence of the direct payment system was a breakdown in the community based management of the commonage resource.
Commonage Framework Plans.
By the mid 1990s it was evident that the situation was unsustainable and that urgent action to reduce ewe’s numbers on the mountains was required. Initially this was achieved by a 30% cut in numbers from the ewe quota held by each individual commonage farmer in 6 western counties. Exceptions were made for farmers who were already in REPS. An across the board response like this created huge inequities as the degree of damage was very variable and farmers in undamaged commonages were subjected to the same cuts as everyone else. At the other end of the spectrum it was obvious that in severely damaged commonages a cut of 30% would not be enough. However the 30% cut was a provisional measure that would in time be replaced by the implementation of commonage framework plans drawn up for each commonage. The production of commonage framework plans began in 1998 and was largely completed by 2002. These plans assessed each commonage management unit, in some cases this meant that two or more commonages were amalgamated; in all cases a destocking % was calculated. The sheep numbers permitted on each commonage farm were reduced from the original ewe quota by a complex formula. This formula incorporated the % destocking prescribed in the framework plan, the stocking rate on the individual farm and the amount of commonage involved. These measures resulted in a rapid reduction in ewe numbers from 2003 onwards.
Introduction of the Single Payment Scheme.
The changeover to the single payment scheme caused a further drop in sheep numbers as the link between ewe numbers and direct payments was broken.
Ongoing monitoring of commonages began in the Owenduff catchment in Co. Mayo in 2004. Other monitoring was subsequently carried out in the Twelve Bens/ Maumturks in Co. Galway , Caha mountains in West Cork, Dartry mountains in Sligo and Leitrim, the Galtees in Tipperary and Limerick, Mweelrea and the Sheefry hills in Co. Mayo, the Cooley peninsula in Co. Louth, the McGillycuddy Reeks in Co. Kerry and parts of the Blue Stacks in Co. Donegal. In most of these the monitoring results were encouraging but further action was deemed necessary in the Owenduff and in the Twelve Bens/ Maumturks. Further reductions in ewe numbers and restrictions on outwintering were implemented in these areas in 2006 and 2008 respectively.
By 2011 it was being claimed in some quarters that some commonages were seriously under grazed. This and a growing realisation that the commonage framework plans were obsolete led to the recently completed review. The review changed the focus from the management unit to the land parcel and introduced the concept of a minimum as well as a maximum stocking rate.
In Ireland, commonage is land that is owned by more than one person. Typically each shareholder owns a defined fraction of the total area and this is detailed on each shareholders folios. It should not be confused with the term “tenants in common”, which is where the land described on a folio belongs to two or more persons. This may happen where land is inherited jointly by siblings or where land is purchased by two or more people. Land held by “tenants in common” is not normally considered as commonage.
Another situation is in respect of lands where there are “grazing rights”. These do not involve any ownership of the land but as the name suggests give a right to graze livestock on the area involved.
Over the years the shareholders on many commonages have decided to “stripe” or split their commonage between them. In spite of this approx 426,000 Ha of commonage remain. Over 11,000 farms have a shareholding in one or more of the approx 4,500 remaining commonages.
All farmers with commonage will shortly receive a letter from the Dept of Agriculture, Food and the Marine regarding how the recently completed commonage review will affect them. This review has completely changed how commonages will be managed in the future and has implications for stock numbers and for direct payments to commonage farmers. It replaces the commonage framework plans and it is hoped will lead to a more community based approach to commonage management.
Commonage Framework Plans have governed sheep numbers on commonages for the last decade. However in recent years it has become increasingly apparent that these were dated and no longer provided for the needs of those involved in commonage management. To deal with this, the Dept. of Agriculture and the National Parks and Wildlife Service have reviewed the Commonage Framework Plans to make them more relevant to current requirements. This review was based on the patterns of recovery observed in commonages throughout Ireland since 2004.
Implementation of the commonage framework plans resulted in many farmers having to destock from their original ewe quota level. The new system breaks the link with the old ewe quota and instead allows farmers to stock at sustainable levels. In effect this means that the starting point is zero and that farmers can increase their stocking to a sustainable level as determined in the commonage review.
The new system also introduces a collective approach to managing commonages. It will be the shareholders themselves who will determine how many animals each farmer will graze on the commonage. However the total number must be within a minimum and maximum number for the commonage as set out in the letter from the Dept. of Agriculture. This collective responsibility may also allow the Dept. of Agriculture to impose penalties on all shareholders if a commonage is improperly managed.
Farmers utilise the commonage for grazing livestock, but it also represents forage area on which they get paid in the dis-advantaged area and single payment schemes To ensure that all farmers can continue to get what they need out of their commonage they should reach an internal agreement among themselves. This agreement must be agreed by the farmers themselves however it may be facilitated by an expert third party. The agreement will ensure that all shareholders know where they stand, what commitments they have and how they will resolve any disputes, either between themselves or with outside bodies. In short the internal agreement sets out how they are going to manage their commonage. The contents of the agreement are up to the farmers themselves but as a minimum it should set out how many animals each farmer will keep so that the group can meet the sustainable stocking requirement.
It is unlikely that an even split between all shareholders will be the optimum approach to achieve this. The circumstances and farm enterprises of different shareholders will vary, some may be unwilling to increase numbers at all, others perhaps, may wish to increase to a level in excess of what an even split would allow. The situation is further complicated by dormant shareholders who do not farm the commonage at all and by the renting and leasing of shares. While dealing with all of these issues is not straightforward, the problems posed are manageable. However to do this successfully requires a structured and most importantly, a workable agreement between the shareholders.
This is an opportunity for farmers to manage their commonage together, largely free from external interference. It is not something that people should fear or be apprehensive about, but it does require their careful attention.
AEOS 3 schemes announced at the ploughing championships. The Minister of Agriculture, Food and the Marine has announced that €20 million euro has been made available to finance an AEOS 3 scheme. This will be enough to accommodate approx 6,000 farmers. Priority will be given to farmers with commonage or Natura land (SAC or SPA). The details of this scheme have not been announced yet but are expected in the very near future.
Full details will be posted on this site as soon as they are available.