Your Department has never published defined standards for making a determination on agricultural activity.
Your Department does however have the option of dealing with issues raised relating to perceived under-utilisation through the GAEC regulation and impose GAEC penalties.
Previously, the State was held to account for overgrazing of mountain habitats and at that time, your Department's imposition of blanket destocking led to severe impacts on farming in marginal areas which was ultimately only partly addressed through specific Commonage Framework Plans.
Evidence from the monitoring of agricultural activity on commonages in recent years has shown an improvement in habitat and now is the time to build on this improvement.
Signatories understand that the Department is interpreting the eligibility rules in order to further reduce the reference areas on similar lands on a much wider scale than we have seen thus far.
The above mentioned eligibility findings are distinct from the European Commission's Land Eligibility Review of the LPIS database in 2013, which focuses on ineligible 'features' and past rules relating to direct payments.
Under the new CAP Regulations, the potential problems identified above can be resolved by Ireland adopting article 4(1)(h) of regulation 1307/2013. Article 4(1)(h) provides you with considerable flexibility by delegating the option to adopt a definition of permanent grasslands, which can be grazed and which forms part of established local practices where grasses and other herbaceous forage are traditionally not predominant in grazing areas.
It also provides objective criteria, which can be used by any farmer, inspector, planner or auditor when dealing with these types of lands (e.g. dry heaths, wet heaths and blanket bog).
The conservation objectives should be about maintaining the traditional farming practices that have helped the survival of the habitats and species of national and international conservation concern.
Reducing the reference areas of Natura lands, in particular, compromises the capacity of farmers to maintain these lands in GAEC.
As a result of the aforementioned reductions, the farmers, having in-depth local and historical knowledge of their lands, expect the affected lands to 'scrub up' having devastating implications for key upland habitats and bird communities (including species of high conservation concern such as hen harrier, merlin, curlew, golden plover, chough, red grouse and skylark). Consequently, farmers are now concerned that their lands will breach the Birds and Habitats Directives under cross compliance.
In this context, Article 6(2) of the Habitats Directive places, according to the European Court of Justice, an "obligation of general protection" requiring the avoidance of deterioration and disturbance within SACs and SPAs. Specifically that: "Member States shall take appropriate steps to avoid, in the special areas of conservation, the deterioration as well as disturbance of the species and habitats".
The Department is not carrying out any 'appropriate assessment' in advance of making decisions likely to have a significant effect on Natura 2000 sites. The EU (Birds and Natural Habitats) Regulations place an obligation on all public authorities to exercise their functions in compliance with, the requirements of the Birds and Habitats Directives
The Irish Government has previously been warned by the European Court of Justice regarding the need for careful and informed decision-making in relation to the Birds and Habitats Directives.
Is your department going to adopt Article 4 (1)(h)?
Are you going to provide clear and objective criteria for the assessment of eligibility and agricultural activity?
If not, your department's current interpretation will lead to inevitable land abandonment (in particular abandonment of upland and Natura 2000 lands), rural depopulation, as well as having serious implications for Ireland's greatest tourist attraction (the Irish rural landscape) and the economic, social and environmental fabric of rural Ireland.
Letter submitted by Irish Natura & Hill Farmers Association
Supported by the following organisations:
Irish Cattle & Sheep Farmers' Association
Irish Farmers with Designated Land
Irish Red Grouse Association
Golden Eagle Trust
Irish Red Grouse Conversation Trust
European Forum on Nature Conservation and Pastoralism
National Association of Regional Game Councils
Irish Beekeeping Association
West Cork Community Alliance
Kilchreest-Peterswell Game and Conservation Club
Derrybrien Development Society
Woodford Gun Club
Irish Hawking Club
Irish Breeds Club
Galway Game Hunting Association
Farm Advisory Services Ltd,
The Woodland league
John McDonagh Planner
The Ox Mountain Hill Sheep Development Association