THERE has been a furious farmer reaction to the proposed introduction of stringent new rules governing the reclamation and drainage of land.
Planning permission will be needed for drainage of wetlands, while the reclamation of farmland will, in some instances, require the approval of the Department of Agriculture. The new rules are included in legislation which the Government hopes to have cleared later this month.
The proposals were outlined to farmer representatives by officials from the departments of Agriculture and Environment at a meeting in Portlaoise, Co Laois on Friday.
Farmers with certain types of wetland will have to seek full planning permission from their county council for land drainage activities where the area exceeds 0.1ha or a quarter of an acre.
A full scale Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) will be required for drainage work on more than 2ha -- around 5ac -- of wetland.
Department of Environment officials explained that areas classified as wetlands included the Shannon Callows, turloughs, swamps or marshes and river flood plains.
Outside of wetlands, land reclamation and drainage operations will be subject to a screening process by the Department of Agriculture. This is similar to the process used when assessing the planting of forestry or miscanthus.
If the screening shows that the work will have an impact on the environment, then a full EIA will be needed.
The removal of field boundaries, such as hedges, the recontouring of land by infill, the use of uncultivated land or semi-natural areas for intensive agriculture and drainage and irrigation will all require Department clearance above a given area or threshold.
While Department staff gave no indication on the threshold levels which would apply for this screening, it is feared that the Commission wants them as close to zero as possible.
Farmer representatives were also told that the new regime would apply to all lands and not just to ground which is deemed eligible under the single farm payment (SFP).
However, farmers found to be in breach of the new rules could be subject to SFP fines under cross compliance.
The drive to change the planning regulations has been prompted by a European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruling dating back to November 2008.
The original court ruling found that Ireland's system of EIA screening for certain categories of agriculture and aquaculture-related projects was in breach of EU directives.
It noted that the Irish interpretation was over-reliant on size thresholds and failed to take account of the sensitive nature of sites.
The case was back before the ECJ last month when Ireland was threatened with fines of €4,000/day unless it implemented the directive correctly. If it is still non-compliant by July 23, the fines could rise to €33,000/day.
Reacting to the proposed new regulations, IFA vice-president Eddie Downey said there was an urgent need for the Minister for Agriculture, Simon Coveney, to clarify the threshold levels if the legislation was not to prevent farmers growing their businesses.
He also called on Mr Coveney and the Minister for the Environment, Phil Hogan, to raise the issue of the next EU Council of Ministers meeting so that a practical political solution could be reached.
ICSA president Gabriel Gilmartin has described the proposals as "an outrageous assault" on farmers' property rights and warned that it would result in many land improvement projects being shelved.
The ICMSA's Ciaran Dolan said the new regulations would mean that almost every farm activity was either mandatory or prohibited -- and if not prohibited, huge cost would be involved to get approval.
"These new rules are a panic reaction which should have been avoided," he said. "The Government was fully aware that changes were required since November 20, 2008, more than two and a half years ago, but took no effective action."