The Department of Agriculture appears to be rowing back on its proposed 'collective agreement' rules for commonage farmers.
A draft letter outlining the new rules, due to be sent to commonage farmers this week, has been shelved by Department officials in the face of an hugely negative reaction from farmers.
The letter would have outlined the minimum and maximum number of ewe equivalents (EE) required to graze each commonage. It also included a draft agreement for each shareholder in a commonage to set out their 2013 stock numbers. The draft letter also warned farmers that not abiding by the declaration could impact on their single farm payment and other payments.
It is believed that a review of the proposed rules will re-examine the minimum and maximum stocking rates and the lead-in time for implementing those stocking rates.
A Department spokesman said it was now considering an implementation plan that would take account of changed stocking levels for the commonages.
"We are trying to reconcile the reality of commonages with the EU requirements of Good Agricultural and Environmental Condition (GAEC). The Minister and the Department will work with the farmers, farm organisations and others to design a practical solution," he added.
Farm organisations have welcomed the decision to delay the letter and called for a complete re-think on the rules.
IFA hill chairman Tom Fadian insisted that collective agreements should be optional and not forced on farmers. He maintained that no farmer should be forced to reduce sheep numbers and the timeframe for commonages to move to correct stocking rates should be set at up to 10 years.
"No farmer should be penalised where they abide by the minimum and maximum stocking rates regardless of whether the commonage is undergrazed due to dormant shares," he maintained. He added that a wide range should exist between the minimum and maximum stocking levels.
ICSA president Gabriel Gilmartin said the main sticking point with the Department's proposed new rules was the collective agreement concept.
"In a good number of cases, strained relations between the shareholders will make agreement impossible," said Mr Gilmartin. He added that he was concerned about the potential for compliant farmers to be penalised due to non-compliance of other shareholders.
"There is also a strong possibility that shareholders who previously got on well will fall out over the detail of the proposals," he said.
Welcoming the Department's move to review the rules, ICMSA environment chairman Patrick Rohan said the Department had begun to appreciate the "impracticality and unfairness" of holding all the farmers on a commonage collectively responsible for the action or inaction of individuals.
He added that the proposed regulations would do nothing to help co-operation and would only cause friction and disagreements between farmers.