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Wednesday 16 January 2019

Darragh McCullough: My GLAS 'eviction' has been reversed but I am left with much to stew on

Darragh McCullough on his farm in Stamullen, Co Meath. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Darragh McCullough on his farm in Stamullen, Co Meath. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Darragh McCullough

Darragh McCullough

A year ago, I wrote about the ridiculous situation I found myself in with the Department of Agriculture.

I had just lost an appeal against a decision by them to fine me more than €3,000 for a missing tag from one of my two pet sheep.

I was hoping then that it would be my one and only serious run-in with the authorities over how I run my farm.

Alas, I wasn't to be so lucky.

Only a few months later I was unceremoniously thrown out of the GLAS scheme.

This is the Department of Agriculture's flagship scheme to enhance farming's impact on the environment.

It now has over 50,000 participants with close to one million acres of land signed up to create or protect specific habitats to halt the declining biodiversity that is being recorded throughout the countryside.

I thought it sounded like a no-brainer when I signed up two years ago. Somebody was offering to pay me up to €5,000 a year, and in return I had to create and maintain habitats that would promote wildlife on my farm.

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So we duly set to here, making all our own bird- and bat-boxes. We also created bee-hotels which are basically more timber boxes full of timbers with holes in them. Then we sowed a field with a special mix of seed to feed wild birds. We placed weighbridge-stamped tonnes of gritty sand in quiet corners of fields. We set aside a paddock for low-input permanent pasture, and we coppiced hundreds of metres of hedges and fenced them off - even though there isn't any livestock in those fields.

That was just part of the rules of the scheme, so we sucked it up. However, when we were filling out the application form - admittedly on the last day before the applications deadline - we had also ticked the box for Low Emission Slurry Spreading (LESS).

When we had worked our way through the whole application, we realised that we had enough actions listed without including the LESS option.

My recollection is that the system was a bit glitchy and we couldn't deselect the option so we left a zero in the box for the cubic metres of slurry that we were committing to spread.

Even though I reckon I'd spent nearly €5,000 up front to carry out all the measures, I reckoned it was a good investment given that I was all set to receive more than €4,000 a year in payments over the next five years.

I even hosted a GLAS training day here where I was able to show off all the measures that I had completed to other farmers that were signed up for the scheme.

The first warning signs that there might be something awry were two letters looking for clarification on the amount of slurry that I had spread.

I sent them back stating that we had spread no slurry because we had never planned to spread any slurry, and thought nothing more of them at the time.

The third letter was like a bolt from the blue. "I must advise you that your entire application will now be rejected from the scheme," it bluntly stated.

I could scarcely believe my eyes. And despite having plenty of senior contacts in political and agricultural circles, no amount of phone calls seemed to be able to fix the problem.

Once again I was facing the prospect of an oral appeal, and once again I knew my chances of success were slim to nil.

However, with nothing to lose I sought a hearing, and six months after my eviction notice, I was facing two Department officials in the Teagasc office in Navan.

A full nine weeks passed (as is normal in these things) before I heard anything back.

Now, I like to think that I am as well able to digest complex issues as the next fella, but I am still trying to get to grips with the contents of the densely worded six-page letter that I received in the post last week.

The bit that I did understand is that they have let me back into the scheme.

It appears that one of the Department's main concerns was that I was trying to 'game' the system by selecting the LESS option, which immediately gave my application a high-priority status in the situation where the scheme was over-subscribed.

The fact that, in the end, there was room for all applicants to the scheme seems to be irrelevant to the authorities here.

And while my initial inclination was to holler and whoop, I am left stewing on all kinds of doubts and dark thoughts.

When is my next inspection due? What will they target me for this time? Is it just me?

Even if I park the conspiratorial urges, there are some big issue questions arising from these kinds of incidents.

The Department were happy to let all the environmental measures that I had taken go to waste because I had a zero in the wrong box?

Surely they are also conscious of the fall-out from these kinds of scenarios with individuals and their neighbours?

If they can't get well-meaning farmers to trust them and the schemes that they invite us to participate in, where are they going long-term?

When I look back at the last few years, I see an ever-increasing list of daft fines and penalties.

I've suffered deductions because somebody on the Department payroll took the time to cut out the corner areas of each field of daffodils where we have to lift the planter and turn the machine.

I've been fined for having an untagged pet sheep. And then this latest drama with what I would consider a fairly straight-forward scheme application.

Having worked with, and known personally, so many good people in the Department, I still have faith in the system as a whole. But these recent experiences do chip away at that belief.

So if I have one wish for this Christmas, it's that the Department works harder to allow farmers keep the faith in 2019.

Darragh McCullough farms in Meath and presents Ear to the Ground on RTÉ television

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