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Sunday 11 December 2016

Farmer fury boils over in first meeting about AEOS

Sheepmen demand greater funding as scheme dubbed 'Mickey Mouse' package

Declan O'Brien

Published 19/04/2011 | 05:00

There was a stormy reception for the new Agri-Environment Options Scheme (AEOS) at the first of a series of information meetings on Friday night, with one farmer describing the scheme as a "Mickey Mouse" package.

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Furious sheep farmers said the payments available under AEOS 2 were an "insult" and they demanded that extra funding be made available for a "proper" scheme.

"Go back to Mr Tom Moran [secretary general of the Department of Agriculture] and tell him to cop on and put a decent scheme in place," one farmer told Department officials at the meeting in Westport, Co Mayo.

The slashing of this year's AEOS budget to €25m and possible rule changes in the scheme in 2013 came in for particularly strong criticism.

While Department staff said the rule change stipulation was included at the insistence of EU officials, angry farmers pointed out that there was no suggestion of a change to the rules for those in AEOS 1, and it was also a five-year scheme.

Senior Department inspector Liam Fahey accepted that the scheme fell short of farmer expectations but he insisted that the €25m had been "hard got".

"We'd be delighted to have €50m and the scheme open to 10,000 farmers but these are different times. Money is tight and this scheme was in the balance even at €25m," Mr Fahey told the meeting.

Under the scheme, farmers could choose such options as species-rich grassland or traditional hay meadows to get the maximum payment of €4,000, he insisted.

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He added that applicants who sowed oats and linseed for wild bird cover qualified for a payment of €869/ha.

"You don't pick that [money] up too easy," Mr Fahey said.

While the scheme was optional, Mr Fahey said that farmers with commonage and Natura lands would get priority access and he expected around 4,500 such landowners to apply.

Participation

However, farmers pointed out that to qualify for compensation payments as a result of the designation of their land as Special Protection Areas or Special Areas of Conservation (SACs), participation in an agri-environment programme was compulsory.

For those coming out of REPS, there was nowhere else to go but into AEOS, which meant a forced cut in their income, farmers claimed.

There were also calls for a review of the Commonage Framework Plan, under which the destocking rates for the various hill areas were agreed in 2002.

"If the stocking levels and restrictions were lifted, we'd be able to earn what we'd make from this scheme simply by carrying more ewes," one farmer claimed.

However, Mr Fahey said that a review of the Commonage Framework Plan was an issue for the National Parks and Wildlife Service and the Department of Environment.

Farmers also criticised the Department of Agriculture for failing to advertise the AEOS information meetings more widely and giving such short notice for last Friday's meeting.

Three more information meetings are scheduled. The first takes place at the Firgrove Hotel, Mitchelstown, at 8pm tonight, Hotel Kilkenny, Kilkenny, and the Longford Arms Hotel, Longford, tomorrow night at 8pm.

On AEOS payments for last year, Patricia Kelly, from the Department's office in Johnstown Castle, accepted that no farmer had been paid yet.She said mapping problems and a requirement to go through each application had led to the delays, but she insisted "all farmers will be paid".

Meanwhile, the IFA's Padraic Divilly called for restrictions currently in place in SACs to be scaled back.

Speaking ahead of a meeting with Minister for Arts, Heritage and Gaeltacht Affairs, Jimmy Deenihan, Mr Divilly said these restrictions were hurting rural areas.

He said the stocking rate restriction on 500,000ha of commonage could be reduced by 50pc in most areas, as they have been overgrown since destocking occurred more than 10 years ago.

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