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.