FARMERS are threatening to burn huge areas of scrub and natural habitats in a desperate attempt to protect their crucial EU farm payments.
A review of all 900,000 land parcels by the Department of Agriculture revealed that 25,000 farmers were claiming payments on areas of their farms that did not qualify under strict EU rules.
Farmers in western regions, where farms comprise significant amounts of rock and furze, are expected to bear the brunt of the clawback of up to €10m from the Single Farm Payment.
Department of Agriculture officials are also consulting with EU Commission auditors to see if retrospective fines stretching back over the past five years will also be imposed on farms where significantly too much money was claimed.
As a result, many farmers say they will now burn out any natural features such as gorse, furze or rushes that are typically associated with areas of increased biodiversity.
"I'm just waiting for my ground to dry out before I tackle it," said Dermot Kelleher, who farms over 100 acres near Inchigeelagh in northwest Cork.
"I've about 10 acres that I was paid to turn into a wildlife habitat when I was in REPS (Rural Environmental Protection Scheme), and I really thought it was brilliant with all the birds and wildlife that became established in it," said the part-time beef farmer, who doubles as the postman in the area.
After 20 years in REPS, the scheme ended for Mr Kelleher in 2012. He expected to be able to submit this land as part of his farm area for the Single Farm Payment, which comprises almost 100pc of his farm income.
"I'm damned if I'm going to have that amount of land excluded from my Single Farm Payment just because it's a habitat now," he said.
Instead, Mr Kelleher plans to clear the area of all the scrub and rushes that have established themselves through a combination of burning, herbicide and a digger.
"There's loads of guys all around here in the exact same boat. Some of them fear that they are going to lose their entire Single Farm Payment because more than 20pc of their land is being classified as unfarmable," he said.
"But the lads in Brussels don't understand that this is the type of terrain that we've farmed for generations."
Department of Agriculture officials claim that Irish farmers faced fines of up to €150m from the EU if they didn't rectify the anomalies in the areas being used to claim payments.
But Mr Kelleher said he was worried about the strain that the whole review process was putting on farmers who were completely dependent on the payments for an income.
"I've had lads that I'd be delivering the post to literally break down in tears with the worry of losing everything to this," he claimed.
"I lost farming friends and neighbours to suicide last spring when the fodder crisis was at its worst. I was trying to get some attention on the issue but it was only when it hit the big farmers in the lowlands that suddenly the help arrived.
"I'm just worried that the exact same thing is going to happen again."