The EU's new 'active farmer' regulations could potentially force farmers dependent on conacre to the wall, estate agents in Northern Ireland have warned.
Traditionally, over 30pc of the land in the North is let as conacre, but some landowners are re-establishing themselves as active farmers to qualify for EU entitlements.
"We are desperately trying to find conacre for some clients prepared to travel over 40 miles to get it," said livestock auctioneer and estate agent Danny McAlister, who is based in Cushendall, Co Antrim. "I have one sheep farmer in north Antrim who lost 75ac of conacre as the owner decided to become an active farmer once again.
"The main problem is, thanks to the new rules, some 'slipper' farmers are starting up again just to get the entitlements.
"I have also seen men who have not bought sheep in 25 years buying very poor cheap hoggets. The country is going to be full of round bales and poor sheep if this goes on just because some landowners want to wake up out of retirement.
"In fact, I know of a 94-year old landowner in north Antrim who has stopped letting and is becoming 'active' again. If some farmers cannot get conacre they will be forced to sell livestock, which could ultimately put them out of business in more serious cases," he added.
There is also a shortage of conacre land in Down and Armagh. "We held a land letting auction this week with two lots of 40ac near Moira in Co Armagh up for grabs - the winning bidder on both lots paid £340 (€478) per acre for one and £270 (€368) per acre for the second," said Gary Best of Best Property Services in Newry.
"The farmer has to travel from Dromara, which is around 40 minutes away as he lost 150ac of conacre. The underbidder was travelling two hours from Co Fermanagh as he also had lost 150ac of conacre.
"The winning farmer knows he will not make any money from this but it's a simple choice of either losing his herd or taking desperate measures to find conacre," added Mr Best.