Thursday 17 October 2013

Will the Oireachtas Committee on Agricultures Report be acted on?

Dara Calleary (Mayo, Fianna Fail)

To ask the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine if he will implement the proposals contained within the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine Review of Commonage Lands and Framework Management Plans 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.

Comment, The Minister for Agriculture refers to his intention to convene a broad group of all relevant stakeholders. It is unclear what exactly the Minister means by this, but it does seem that the proposals of the Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture will at least be on the table. We have to agree with the Minister that the issue is complex and are happy that the Oireachtas report is being recognised as a good starting point in this process. It was produced with cross party support, after listening to the views of a wide range of stakeholders and expert commentators. Its suggestions, in particular those referring to the need for a co-operative approach, the importance of avoiding a one size fits all approach and the need for an uplands scheme, although in need of fleshing out are a sound basis for progressing the issue of commonage management. We hope that the process being embarked on by his Department will build on this by continuing the engagement with farmers and relevant experts to design a fair, robust and workable approach that can achieve the desired objectives and recognise the central role played by the farmer in providing a food product and an environmental service.

Tuesday 15 October 2013

Commonage Restrictions in the Twelve Bens/ Maamturks

Commonage Framework Plans

Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine if a person in County Galway who is participating in the Twelve Bins/Maam Turk Complex can amend their agri-environment option scheme plan to allow them to put their sheep back on the hill due to the fact that the Twelve Bins/Maam Turk Complex scheme is not being renewed after November; and if he will make a statement on the matter.

Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine (Deputy Simon Coveney): I am aware that the Twelve Bins/Maam Turk Complex Scheme, which the National Parks and Wildlife Service put in place for the purpose of regenerating these commonages, expires on 1st November, 2013. The future management of these commonage lands will now be considered in the wider context of the ongoing examination of issues relating to all Commonages. This process will involve the farmers directly managing the lands, relevant stakeholders, the farming organisations and all other interested stakeholders. The aim is to achieve a practical solution which will ensure that the farmers actively farming these lands are protected and that the land is maintained or returned to GAEC and that the requirements of the governing EU regulations are met.

There is nothing new in the Ministers reply to Deputy O Cuiv, this has been the standard line for almost a year now. However there is still no sign of any sort of an implementation plan and the mechanisms to attain the goal of keeping commonages in GAEC are still very unclear. The min/ max figures which the Department believed would deliver a solution are at best only a starting point for an implementation plan for each individual commonage. The other aspects of an implementation plan have never been published, without them the Departments commonage management plans are in disarray.

We can only hope that the draft Rural Development Plan which is expected before the end of the year will shed some light on the Department of Agriculture's intentions.

Tuesday 1 October 2013

No Interim Payments for Farmers in the Twelve Bens/ Maamturks left out of an Agri-environment Scheme.

The NPWS will not be making any interim payments to commonage farmers in the Maamturks/ Twelve Bens who were not in an agri-environment scheme in the period 1/12/12 to 1/5/13. This issue was the subject of a question from Fine Gael TD Sean Kyne to Minister Jimmy Deenihan. Both the original question and the Ministers reply are shown below.

Deputy Seán Kyne asked the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht if interim payments will be made to farmers in the Twelve Bens region, County Galway, for 1 December 2012 to 1 May 2013 in recognition of the fact that said farmers were unable to avail of the agri-environment options scheme as no applications were accepted.

Deputy Jimmy Deenihan: Farmers in the Twelve Bens-Garraun and Maumturk mountain complex special areas of conservation have had to amend their farming practices since November 2008 to ensure these mountain commonage areas recover from past overgrazing. This grazing restriction continues until November 2013 and will assist farmers in ensuring their lands are deemed to be in good agricultural and environmental condition, as required under cross-compliance requirements. As part of the compensation package that was agreed in 2008, an additional annual payment of €2,000 over five years was to be paid by my Department to those farmers who were in existing rural environment protection scheme, REPS, contracts for the additional grazing restriction.

Over this period, however, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine closed the REPS scheme and replaced it with the more limited agri-environment options scheme, AEOS, which was opened periodically for farmers. As an exceptional measure, my Department put in place a system of interim payments to cover gaps in which farmers could not access AEOS funding during periods when the scheme was closed to applicants. Such interim payments were sanctioned on three occasions, notwithstanding the significant reduction in funding available to my Department over this period. This was much appreciated by the farmers in question. In sanctioning the final interim payments in November 2012, my Department made clear that it would not be in a position to make any further additional payments for the period mentioned in the question. This position has not changed and there is no funding available to my Department to make further interim payments. Since November 2008, my Department has paid more than €2.6 million to farmers in this area of County Galway. As already referred to, the five years of this grazing restriction will terminate in November of this year.

Deputy Seán Kyne: I thank the Minister for his reply. I know similar problems were rectified in late 2012, of which the farmers affected were greatly appreciative. However, the farmers in question were mandated by the National Parks and Wildlife Service, NPWS, to join the Twelve Bens destocking scheme. They simply had no choice. One of the conditions was that they were also mandated to participate in the agri-environment scheme. However, REPS had closed and AEOS was not available for certain periods. The end result was that these farmers were left with no agri-environment payment for 1 December 2012 to May 2013. Will the Minister engage with the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Simon Coveney, to see if a solution can be achieved between the two Departments to provide interim payments to these farmers?
Deputy Jimmy Deenihan: I will consult with the Minister for Agriculture, Food and theMarine, Deputy Simon Coveney. I suggest the Deputy does so himself. This matter has been considered by my Department but there is no funding available to make an interim payment. We have been generous in the past. If the moneys were available, I would be delighted to provide interim payments. I have met the farmers affected, who are very hardworking and need this funding. Later this evening I am having a meeting with farmers from County Mayo with a similar problem. However, to date there is no source of funding