Sean O Fearghail (Fianna Fail TD for Kildare South) asked the Minister for Agriculture for his reaction to the recently published report of the joint Committee in Agriculture, Food and the Marine on the commonage issue. The full text of the both Mr O Fearghail question and the Ministers response are shown below.
Seán Ó Fearghaíl (Kildare South, Fianna Fail)
To ask the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine the actions he is taking on foot of the report of the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and Marine in relation to commonages; if he intends adopting the recommendations in the report; and if he will make a statement on the matter.
Simon Coveney (Minister, Department of Agriculture, the Marine and Food; Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
The report of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Agriculture is a valuable contribution to the ongoing debate regarding the issues surrounding commonage lands, the views of the various stakeholders having being sought and considered by the Committee. As I have indicated previously, while it is generally accepted that this is a very complex matter and requires a very detailed action plan to cover the various issues, I intend in the near future to set out proposals on how these matters will be progressed. My firm intention is that the process will be fully inclusive and that all stakeholders, particularly farmers and their representatives, will be central to the process. It is only by adopting this approach that the desired result can be achieved.
With regard to the specific recommendations of the Committee contained in their Report, I can confirm that these will be included among the range of issues to be addressed in the process that will shortly be commenced by my Department - it very clear that matters to be resolved are very wide ranging and complex; it is self-evident that the process required to adequately address these must be fully inclusive and focused. To this end, I am determined, as indicated, to convene a broad group of all relevant stakeholders, charged with comprehensively addressing the range of issues.
Commonage lands form an important part of the farming enterprises of many farmers, particularly along the West Coast. They also form an important part of the local environment from the point of view of bio-diversity, wildlife, amenities and economic returns e.g. tourism. However, there is a substantial risk of land abandonment as under-grazing becomes more of a problem. Under-grazing leads to an increase in ineligible land under Direct Aid and Agri-Environment Schemes and leads to risk of financial corrections being imposed by EU Commission. It is vital, therefore, to maintain the commonages in GAEC (Good Agricultural and Environmental Condition), or where there is under-grazing, to return the habitat to GAEC.
Following the successful completion of the negotiations on CAP reform under the Irish Presidency on 26 June 2013, I launched a consultation process with all relevant stakeholders to ascertain their views on the most appropriate application of the Direct Payment Regulation. The final date for submissions on the Consultative Paper is 20th September. The agreement provides that where there is marginal land the applicant or applicants must graze that land if he or she is to satisfy the eligibility criteria to be deemed an active farmer for the purposes of benefiting from payment under the Direct Payment Scheme. As most of the commonage land declared in Ireland can only be maintained by grazing, this matter will also have to be dealt with in the context of maintaining commonages in Ireland.
Taking all of these matters into account, it is my stated aim is to ensure that a practical solution is reached, which will ensure that the current farmers actively farming these lands are protected; that the land is maintained or returned to GAEC and that the requirements of the governing EU Regulations are met. In my view, this can best be achieved by working with the farmers directly managing the lands, relevant State Agencies, the farming organisations and all other interested stakeholders. I have no doubt that work undertaken by the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Agriculture will greatly assist in this matter.