Wednesday 27 November 2013

REPS/ AEOS Payments to begin.

The minister for agriculture has announced that 50 million euro will be paid out to farmers in REPS 4 and AEOS 1 and 2 next week. This represents the initial 75% payment, it is hoped that the remaining 25% will be paid in the near future.

Wednesday 20 November 2013

Commonage process to commence soon.

Sean Kyne TD along with Eamon O Cuiv TD and Andrew Doyle TD have taken a keen interest in progressing the commonage issue. They and a small number of other Deputies have been pressing the Minister for Agriculture on numerous occasions for an indication as to the long term plan towards addressing the commonage issue. Unfortunately the flow of real information as to the Dept. of Agricultures plans has been painfully slow. However in response to a recent question from Sean Kyne the Minister for Agriculture has revealed in more detail than we have seen up to now, how he sees the situation progressing over the coming months.

"Sean Kyne (Galway West, Fine Gael): To ask the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine when liaison committees will be set up in commonage areas as agreed by him with representatives of farm organisations from Galway and Mayo in 2012 in view of the concerns regarding commonage stocking rates, farmer exiting REP scheme 4, the conclusion of the 12 Bens Scheme and the absence of compensation for special areas of conservation and Natura designations to many farmers in 2014 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 CAP Reform package which I negotiated contains elements which could impact on those farming commonage lands. However, I am awaiting the adoption of EU Commission delegated acts; it is expected that discussion on these delegated acts will be concluded before year-end.
The issue of stocking levels on Commonages and the approach necessary to address what is recognised as a very complex matter which requires a very detailed action plan to cover the various issues, is one which has received widespread coverage.

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.

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.

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. 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."

If as is anticipated the delegated acts (technical issues delegated by the Council of Minister and the European Parliament to the Commission) are adopted before the end of the year and the draft RDP is finalised then everything will be in place to allow for the design of a workable solution to the commonage issue. The Joint Committee on Agriculture, the Upland Working Group and others have made positive contributions as to how this can be done. It is a positive development that the Minister for Agriculture has confirmed that the process of developing a new approach to commonage management will commence soon. Hopefully real progress will be seen over the next six weeks.

Sunday 17 November 2013

Publication of new Rural Development Plan

Details of the Rural Development Plan for 2014-2020 will be presented to the National Platform for Biodiversity and Research on December 12th. This will give commonage stakeholders the clearest indication yet of how the Dept. of Agriculture intends to proceed with this issue and what they are willing to pay for.

Tuesday 12 November 2013

Lisadell Judgement, How does this affect access to Commonages?

The Supreme Court judgement on the long running dispute about public rights of way on the Lisadell estate in Co. Sligo may have consequences for access to commonages throughout Ireland. The ruling that a long history of public access does not of itself create a right of way for the public is a welcome development, not just for commonage farmers but also for recreational users of upland areas. For farmers this means that a right of way cannot be created over their lands without their consent, this is a key issue because there is a world of a difference between inviting/ allowing/ tolerating recreational users and granting a permanent right of access to anyone at any time. Ironically if people like those in "Keep Ireland Open" could only see it, this is also of benefit to recreational users of the countryside as it allows the many farmers who welcome visitors to continue to do so without fear of permanently losing control over part of their lands. Had the judgement gone the other way it could have precipitated a rush to block access so as to prevent rights of way from becoming established. I do not believe that such a development would have been in anyone's long term interest.

There is no doubt that the recreational value of upland areas is immense, however it is fraught with difficulties. While walking and climbing based tourism generates welcome business in some rural areas, in most cases there is no viable mechanism to allow the benefits of this to trickle down to the landowner. Comparisons with Scotland or England are not very useful, as in places like the Lake District and much of the Scottish highlands, land ownership remains concentrated in a relatively small number of big estates. This allows the creation of viable walking routes by an individual landowner or a very small group of such owners. This task is more difficult in Ireland as land reform in the 19th/20th centuries means that a useful walking route will have to traverse the properties (both commonage and privately owned) of many different farmers. However "difficult" should not mean impossible and by negotiation the establishment of such routes can and does happen. Indeed many of these routes are already operating very successfully.

The suggestion by "Keep Ireland Open" that farmers representatives at such talks are only interested in the "brown envelope" is not helpful. To assert that seeking to realise a cash benefit from the use of your land is somehow corrupt or sinister is unjustified and does not bring a solution to the access issue any closer.

Thursday 7 November 2013

End of Stocking Restrictions on the 12 Bens and Maumturks. How will this affect Eligibility for the Dis-Advantaged Area Scheme.

The additional measures introduced in Nov 2008 in SAC and Commonage Areas in the Maumturks expire this month. The measures were introduced as following detailed monitoring which established that the expected recovery of vegetation was not taking place. Farmers in these areas were obligated to join either the REPS scheme or the NPWS Farm Plan Scheme. Farmers who were in REPS received a top up from the NPWS to compensate for the additional measures required.

The big issue now for many of these farmers is how this will their eligibility for the Dis-advantaged Area Scheme in 2014 and beyond. Farmers in the 12 Bens/ Maumturks were shielded from the increase in the minimum stocking density requirements for the DAS scheme by their obligations to NPWS. However with these restrictions lifted, the farmers will have to meet the normal DAS qualifying stocking density in 2014, this may in some cases require a considerable increase in stock numbers and or a change in farming system. Making this change in one year may be very difficult for some of them. As the only realistic way of increasing flock sizes in upland areas is by ensuring that the number of ewe lambs retained is greater than the number of cull ewes sold, increasing flock size is limited by the availability of ewe lambs.

If the farmer did not make provision for this this year then he may have real difficulties in 2014. However even if a farmer did retain extra ewe lambs, there is a limit to the possible rate of increase in flock size. In most cases increasing the flock by more than 15-20% in one year is not realistic.

Whether this will be enough to satisfy the new requirements for all of the affected farmers is extremely unlikely. It seems inevitable that unless some transition period is provided for by the Dept. of Agriculture that some farmers are at risk of losing their DAS payment in 2014.