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.