Irate hill farmers are blaming their lowland colleagues for a new Department of Agriculture proposal that eligible hill and mountain land be fenced.
The use of hill and mountain land by intensive dairy and beef farmers to meet Nitrates Directive targets have been blamed for the Department's move.
Hill farmers have warnted that the cost of fencing upland areas will be prohibitive but farm organisations have admitted that failure to do so could result in landowners facing serious penalties on their Disadvantaged Area Scheme (DAS) entitlements and Single Farm Payments (SFP).
Thousands of kilometres of sheep fencing costing €8-10 per metre would be required to fence land on hills and mountains across the west of Ireland.
The United Farmers Association (UFA) has called on the Department to seek ways around the impasse, warning that thousands of upland farmers stood to lose some or all their SFP and DAS payments. These payments are worth up to €10,000 on a 40ha hill farm.
The UFA and local land owners have blamed intensive dairy and beef farmers for the current difficulties. They claimed the problems arise from the practice of intensive farmers buying or leasing hill and mountain land in order to meet their targets under the Nitrates Directive or extensification. These lands are termed 'map acres' and are usually only nominally farmed.
"The UFA view is that it [the fencing requirement] is coming from officials in the Department who rightly see this as a way of dealing with the scourge of 'map acres'," the UFA claimed in a submission to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture.
The UFA cited 'map acre' cases in which dairy farmers claimed to have dairy cows grazing the top of a mountain to avoid nitrates penalties. This resulted in Department staff searching for Holstein cows supposedly grazing 560m above sea level, the UFA said.
The UFA has called on the Department to change the wording of the SFP terms and conditions so that traditionally unfenced non-commonage land can remain unfenced.
"As most of the 'map acre' renters farm cattle only or cattle and sheep, regulations can be drafted to prevent this abuse to the Department's satisfaction by providing an exemption for sheep farmers," the UFA insisted. "Ninety-nine per cent of the genuine farmers affected are exclusively sheep farmers."