Farm Ireland
Independent.ie

Tuesday 17 October 2017

'Commonage eligibility cuts will lead to the abandonment of land and rural decline'

An open letter from hill farmers to minister Simon Coveney

There is growing opposition to attempts by the Department of Agriculture to significantly reduce the area of hill land and commonage deemed eligible for EU direct payments.
There is growing opposition to attempts by the Department of Agriculture to significantly reduce the area of hill land and commonage deemed eligible for EU direct payments.

Contrary to both Irish and European policy and legislation, we believe that recent eligibility inspections and subsequent deductions in eligibility will lead to:

• Widespread land abandonment;

• Significant loss of biodiversity;

• Affect farm productivity and Ireland's international green image;

• Breach European Nature Directives;

• Severe economic and social effects on rural communities.

A number of commonages were recently subjected to substantial eligible area reductions, the focus of which appears to be 'under-utilisation' and we understand that plans are currently in place to systematically reduce the eligible area on commonages where evidence of an 'agricultural activity' as interpreted by your inspectors appears to be lacking.

Independent experts confirmed that reductions for 'under-utilisation' were not scientifically justified. For example, no regard was given to vegetation condition, structure and diversity, which indicated agricultural activity throughout affected parcels.

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Your Department has never published defined standards for making a determination on agricultural activity.

Your Department does however have the option of dealing with issues raised relating to perceived under-utilisation through the GAEC regulation and impose GAEC penalties.

Previously, the State was held to account for overgrazing of mountain habitats and at that time, your Department's imposition of blanket destocking led to severe impacts on farming in marginal areas which was ultimately only partly addressed through specific Commonage Framework Plans.

Evidence from the monitoring of agricultural activity on commonages in recent years has shown an improvement in habitat and now is the time to build on this improvement.

Signatories understand that the Department is interpreting the eligibility rules in order to further reduce the reference areas on similar lands on a much wider scale than we have seen thus far.

The above mentioned eligibility findings are distinct from the European Commission's Land Eligibility Review of the LPIS database in 2013, which focuses on ineligible 'features' and past rules relating to direct payments.

Under the new CAP Regulations, the potential problems identified above can be resolved by Ireland adopting article 4(1)(h) of regulation 1307/2013. Article 4(1)(h) provides you with considerable flexibility by delegating the option to adopt a definition of permanent grasslands, which can be grazed and which forms part of established local practices where grasses and other herbaceous forage are traditionally not predominant in grazing areas.

It also provides objective criteria, which can be used by any farmer, inspector, planner or auditor when dealing with these types of lands (e.g. dry heaths, wet heaths and blanket bog).

The conservation objectives should be about maintaining the traditional farming practices that have helped the survival of the habitats and species of national and international conservation concern.

Reducing the reference areas of Natura lands, in particular, compromises the capacity of farmers to maintain these lands in GAEC.

As a result of the aforementioned reductions, the farmers, having in-depth local and historical knowledge of their lands, expect the affected lands to 'scrub up' having devastating implications for key upland habitats and bird communities (including species of high conservation concern such as hen harrier, merlin, curlew, golden plover, chough, red grouse and skylark). Consequently, farmers are now concerned that their lands will breach the Birds and Habitats Directives under cross compliance.

In this context, Article 6(2) of the Habitats Directive places, according to the European Court of Justice, an "obligation of general protection" requiring the avoidance of deterioration and disturbance within SACs and SPAs. Specifically that: "Member States shall take appropriate steps to avoid, in the special areas of conservation, the deterioration as well as disturbance of the species and habitats".

The Department is not carrying out any 'appropriate assessment' in advance of making decisions likely to have a significant effect on Natura 2000 sites. The EU (Birds and Natural Habitats) Regulations place an obligation on all public authorities to exercise their functions in compliance with, the requirements of the Birds and Habitats Directives

The Irish Government has previously been warned by the European Court of Justice regarding the need for careful and informed decision-making in relation to the Birds and Habitats Directives.

Is your department going to adopt Article 4 (1)(h)?

Are you going to provide clear and objective criteria for the assessment of eligibility and agricultural activity?

If not, your department's current interpretation will lead to inevitable land abandonment (in particular abandonment of upland and Natura 2000 lands), rural depopulation, as well as having serious implications for Ireland's greatest tourist attraction (the Irish rural landscape) and the economic, social and environmental fabric of rural Ireland.

Letter submitted by Irish Natura & Hill Farmers Association

Supported by the following organisations:

Irish Cattle & Sheep Farmers' Association

Irish Farmers with Designated Land

BirdWatch Ireland

Mountaineering Ireland

Irish Red Grouse Association

Golden Eagle Trust

Irish Red Grouse Conversation Trust

European Forum on Nature Conservation and Pastoralism

National Association of Regional Game Councils

Irish Beekeeping Association

West Cork Community Alliance

Kilchreest-Peterswell Game and Conservation Club

Derrybrien Development Society

Woodford Gun Club

Irish Hawking Club

Irish Breeds Club

Galway Game Hunting Association

Farm Advisory Services Ltd,

The Woodland league

John McDonagh Planner

The Ox Mountain Hill Sheep Development Association

Indo Farming

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