Monday 26 September 2016

Flight and fight: farmers in hen harrier areas still not compensated

Thousands of farmers are still waiting for a definitive compensation scheme on lands affected by the EU's protected status for the hen harrier

Published 21/06/2016 | 02:30

3,860 farmers have had land designated as a special protection area (SPA) for the endangered hen harrier
3,860 farmers have had land designated as a special protection area (SPA) for the endangered hen harrier
Minister for Agriculture Michael Creed

Eight months after a new agri-environmental scheme was first announced, farmers with designated lands in hen harrier areas are still waiting.

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A total of €70m has been allocated for the Locally Led Agri-Environment Scheme (LLAES), announced by former Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney in October.

Two hundred farmers were recruited into the Burren Programme in January for a five-year contract with further tranches promised to double participation.

The Department of Agriculture says it hopes specific complementary Hen Harrier and Freshwater Pearl Mussel schemes will open for applications in the second half of 2016.

However, this is subject to ongoing negotiations with the European Commission and budgets have yet to be allocated.

Over half of the 3,860 farmers whose land has been designated as a special protection area (SPA) for the hen harrier have already joined GLAS, described by the Department as "the most successful agri-environment scheme ever launched", guaranteeing hen harrier farmers access ahead of others, and one of the highest per hectare payments of €370pa.

Minister Michael Creed has encouraged more farmers to come in when the third tranche is launched later this year, taking the GLAS hen harrier measure on as much land as they can, and then applying for the LLAES on the balance of their land, which he says will guarantee the best return.

However, Irish Farmers with Designated Land (IFDL), which represents the hen harrier farmers, says GLAS had too many shortcomings to begin with. "GLAS was a very poor effort for compensation and there were a lot of problems with it and it didn't suit everyone," IFDL chairman Liam O'Keeffe told the Farming Independent.

He considers himself one of the lucky ones as only around 26ac of his Ballydesmond, Co Cork holding is designated, unlike a lot of his neighbours.

"Everyone was hoping then that this new scheme would make up for it, and it's still up in the air and people are wondering if it's going to be as good as it needs to be."

In December 2007, the proposal to designate land as a habitat for the hen harrier was made, a rare native species that's protected under an EU directive.

Farmers were given three months to appeal and most didn't, which Mr O'Keeffe puts down to the age of the farmers involved.

"Farmers had to have scientific grounds and I suppose a lot of fellas felt it was over their heads to do anything about it," he said.

"On the other hand, there was a promise of money and they were happy enough they were going to be paid. It never entered their head their land would be devalued.

"To this day they've been a very quiet bunch, whereas if this happened in Dublin and you devalued someone's property there'd be blue murder.

"I have seen a lot of cases where, basically, someone's whole farming enterprise was turned upside down by it."

The farming group accepts the new scheme won't bring back the value of their land. They hope it will give landowners compensation, which they were promised first day.

"If they brought out a 20-year scheme, it probably would because you could go to the bank and say, 'Look, I've got designated land but there's a guaranteed payment for 20 years' and they'll give you money on the strength of it.

"But a five-year scheme isn't much good," Mr O'Keeffe added.

IFDL says its going to continue to seek a better solution but is willing to work with the Department to come to some agreement.

"We were promised it would be €370/ha, similar to the GLAS, but there have been a lot of rumours going around.

"My worry is that if you were to pay €370/ha for the land that is designated, the fund isn't big enough.

"There's €70m in the LLAES, but if you calculate the 169,000ha designated, I don't think the fund that's there will cover it."

Mr O'Keeffe says they've also been promised nobody would be locked out of the scheme and that everyone would be treated the same.

IFDL claims when the GLAS scheme opened, farmers who were already in REPS couldn't apply. By the time the REPS finished, the new scheme had closed.

"Some people lost €8,000 to €10,000 per annum and were very angry, feeling they had been led up the garden path.

"It still beats me how people have stayed so quiet," he said.

Now he says their worry is they'll make it a scheme with so much work to be done it won't pay.

"And if the payment is too small, people won't go to the trouble of applying and they'll be left without compensation again.

"There was always the issue that the farmer across the ditch with no designation got €5,000 and his land wasn't devalued.

"He could sell it, plough it or open dykes but the fella across the ditch with the designation has only €2,000 extra for land devalued and restrictions on his activities, and it just seemed very unfair."

The group agrees that if planting was allowed it would bring back up the value, but the National Parks and Wildlife Service don't want this.

It's now calling for a meeting with Mr Creed to discuss their concerns and hopefully, speed up the roll-out of the scheme.

Indo Farming

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