Tuesday 31 March 2015

A Plea for Heather

What are to we to make of poor Heather's fate, a public enemy to be banished from farmlands, to be burned alive on the hillside, those who harbour her to be excluded and shunned. I don't know what she has done to deserve this because there was a time when was a favoured child, protected by powerful forces, her enemies slaughtered and dispersed by her allies. But now, these friends have turned on her with a vengeance. What has she done?

Sarcasm aside I am of course referring to the group of plant species commonly known as heather and in particular to the Dept.of Agriculture's recent decision to use these plants as a negative indicator for eligibility for key GLAS options.

A recent circular issued to farm advisors containing answers to commonly asked questions raises serious issues for the success of the GLAS scheme in commonage and upland areas. The issue of greatest concern here is the use of the mere presence of heather (at any level) to make entire land parcels ineligible for the Low Input Permanent Pasture Option in GLAS. This is the most generous option within the scheme and one that many farmers will depend on to build up their payments.

In effect the Dept. have selected heather as the definitive feature for the heath and blanket bog habitats which  they do not want used to draw down significant payments under GLAS. What they fail to appreciate is that heather is present in  a wide range of habitats, it is even found on limestone pavement in the Burren. In fact almost any open site with peat or leached acid soils in a high rainfall area could support heather species, as at least a minor component of the flora. In the west, upland grasslands, even those that are moderately grazed will almost always have some heather, flourishing in the more inaccessible parts or clinging to life in a tightly clipped and suppressed form. There is nothing wrong with this, it is a normal feature of these acid grasslands.

Completely uniform swards are not a feature of low intensity agriculture. Upland areas are typically mosaics of different vegetation types, a wet patch with rushes or irises, a sheltered gully supports shrubs and small trees, a well drained slope is cloaked with bracken, bluebells and primroses under its ferny canopy.  This variety is the norm, it is what gives these farmlands their character. Diversity of vegetation is what makes these areas different from intensively farmed monocultures, it is what makes them special and worth conserving. Surely the preservation of this variety is the very purpose of agri-environmental schemes. Heather is a part of this and yet the absolutist position adopted by the Dept. threatens all of it. To appreciate the impact of this policy we must consider the effect at farm and indeed landscape level as well as at land parcel level.

Contrary to what the Dept. of Agriculture would have you believe, very few farmers are going to get the maximum payment in GLAS from commonage alone. While most commonage farmers will benefit from the €120/ Ha payment on commonage and tier 1 priority access, they need to commit to options on their privately owned lands to build their payment to an acceptable level. In Connemara, the most useful of these options are Low Input Permanent Pasture and Stonewall Maintenance. The position in most other commonage areas is very similar.  If the LIPP option is removed as the Heather policy dictates, the attraction of the scheme for many will go with it. Without the structure of GLAS any revival of management on the commonage is undermined and the risk of abandonment grows. This is a cascade effect which will kill off agriculture in the most vulnerable of areas. It would be a perverse outcome of a policy which the Dept. may have seen as having a limited impact and is not in keeping with the schemes objectives.

I appreciate that the Dept. of Agriculture do not want LIPP to be used on bogs and heaths but the choice of heather as a definitive feature for eligibility is misguided. If they must have an indicator species for this purpose why not pick something with a stronger ecological link to blanket bog and wet heath such as Bog Cotton. This species is effectively restricted to these habitats and is easily identifiable by farmers, advisors and Dept. officials.  But irrespective of the choice of indicator species, we must also recognise the variety of vegetation types that exists over even relatively small land parcels and accept that this diversity is  a good thing, something to be cherished and protected not to be a reason for exclusion. 

All of this could be resolved by accepting predominantly grassland parcels, with say over 90% grassland as being eligible for the LIPP option. It is not too late, this is a matter of interpretation and the removal of a major obstacle to participation could be done at the stroke of a pen.

Deal with this before permanent damage is done.

Saturday 21 March 2015

GLAS and Commonages, What you need to know.

Thanks largely to the campaign run by the hill farmers in Donegal and the West, commonage farmers can now apply for GLAS and subsequently develop a commonage management plan. While the closing date for both of these is very tight, currently April 30th and July 3rd respectively, we are confident that following the pushing back of the BPS closing date that the GLAS and CMP deadlines will also be extended.

The decision on a farm and commonage advisor is a key first part in the GLAS application process. For many farmers who have participated in REPS or AEOS they may well have a long standing and valued relationship with their farm advisor. This is a very positive start, the commonage advisor is however a very different issue, this is a completely new field and the decision on the advisor to choose will be the first of many key decisions that will have to be taken in respect of the commonage over the coming months. To choose an advisor first you should look at the package that the advisor is offering, this includes price but also the skills and experience that they bring to the table. While approved advisors are listed on the Dept. of Agricultures website, this only means that the Dept. will accept plans submitted by that individual, it does not mean that the individual concerned has the appropriate skills and experience to produce a plan that is workable and will protect farmers interests into the future.

Remember a 500 Ha commonage could in theory be delivering up to €185,000 a year in payments to its active shareholders by 2019. Over the 5 years and 3 months of a GLAS contract such a hill could be contributing almost $900,000 in payments across all schemes to participating shareholders. This is a huge amount of money, if you were building a house you would not pick an engineer because he is a nice guy or because he lives down the road, you would have to be certain that he is competent to deliver on your investment. Farmers should look on a commonage project in the same way, the decisions have to be made rationally with the seriousness that is due to a project of this size.

You should also examine how the advisor proposes to deliver the service, how is he going to establish what is a workable stocking commitment from each farm? how is he going to determine an appropriate stocking rate for the commonage? If the answer is that he sees this as largely a desk exercise to facilitate GLAS applications then he may well lead you to disaster.  A relatively cheap price is very bad value if it costs you your livelihood.

Continuity of service is also a very important issue, beware of agencies who offer a service dependent on large numbers of newly recruited advisors with little experience and who may well be laid off once the peak of GLAS work has passed. You must be sure that whoever you deal with is in this for the long haul and will be there for you if there are difficulties in the future.

These are  big decisions, think about them very carefully, but act quickly, ideally in co-operation with your neighbours. If you do not, it is possible that other people in the commonage will make the decision for you, a decision that you will be bound by. Shop around, find an advisor who suits your needs. He or she need not be the advisor that you deal with for your individual application. These are separate issues and while it  may seem to be more efficient to deal with a single individual, it  is only a good idea if the package fits your needs in all other respects.

These are crucial months for hill farmers, make the right decisions and make them for the right reasons.

For our followers on facebook and twitter we are offering a €100 discount on the cost of a GLAS plan where the booking is made by e mail or private message. To avail of this offer please message us on facebook or twitter.

P.S. For your information I have posted a link below that will direct you to the Dept. of Agriculture commonage site where you can get further information on your particular commonage.

Monday 9 March 2015

GLAS Teething Problems

Teething problems for the GLAS application process have become apparent in recent days. Of particular concern is the reduced period for the completion of the Commonage Management Plans. The current position is that these have to be in place by July 3rd. What happens if this does not happen is not yet clear but I presume that the individual applications from the farmers affected would fail. While these people will be accommodated in the second tranche of applications, their payments will inevitably be delayed. 

On private land many commentators have identified the issues regarding claiming payments for linear features like stonewalls on divided land parcels. This is completely illogical but an equally serious issue is the suggestion that not to allow payment under the Low Input Permanent Pasture option on land that contains any heather. This will have serious consequences for farmers with privately owned upland grassland plots. Interestingly this ban on heather within LIPP parcels is not in either the scheme specifications or in the terms and conditions documents, rather it is in the answers to commonly asked questions published on the Dept. of Agriculture's website. perhaps there is still potential for movement on this. Farmers and Planners alike should keep the pressure up on the Dept to correct this blatantly unfair anomaly. 

On a practical level, the operation of the on line mapping system used for preparing GLAS applications is quite slow, particularly for linear features such as stonewalls. While our broadband is quite good, I fear that advisors in areas where the broadband access is poor will be in for an infuriating procedure. Watch out for your advisor going bald or grey over the next few months.

For farmers intending to apply for the scheme, get in touch with an advisor as soon as you can. Do not expect that you will be able to get an application prepared in the last weeks of April, it will not happen. The commonage planning process will not begin until mid May but farmers should begin planning for it now. In particular, if it is at all feasible discuss the issue of the choice of commonage planner with other shareholders. The ideal solution here is that you get an advisor of your choice. While the Dept. of Agriculture will appoint some one if agreement among shareholders is not possible, this is very much a sub optimal outcome. Decide on someone and approach them now to check their availability, you may well find that as time passes the ability of advisors to commit to a commonage plan may diminish. 

In spite of the difficulties, remember that GLAS does present significant opportunities not only in terms of payments but also as a mechanism to address management issues and to help safeguard payments from the Basic Payment Scheme and the Areas facing Natural Constraints Scheme. Most of all keep the faith.