Wednesday 31 October 2012

Publication of Required Stock Numbers for Commonage Land Parcels

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. 

Tuesday 23 October 2012

Commonage Collective Agreements

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.

AEOS 3 Scheme Details

Key details.

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 Commonage.

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.

The application for payment each year will be that years SPS application and payments should issue in November/ December each year.

The options 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.


Monday 15 October 2012

Opening of AEOS 3 Scheme

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.

Tuesday 9 October 2012

Commonage Governance

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.

Saturday 6 October 2012

History of Commonage

Pre Land Reform 
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. 

Land Commission 

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. 

Commonage Monitoring. 

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. 

Commonage Review 

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.

Friday 5 October 2012

What is Commonage?

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.

Tuesday 2 October 2012

Commonage Review

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.