A booming trade for marginal land has seen large tracts of ground in the west being purchased by commercial farmers from the midlands, south and east.
The trade is being driven by the potential for substantial returns from programmes such as the Young Framers' Scheme and ANC, as well as the possibility of insulating farmers' Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) entitlements from convergence.
Buoyant demand for marginal land, which is generally not suitable for planting, has resulted in a steady increase in sale prices, with the bulk of the ground currently moving for €700-800/ac.
Much of this land is being bought by local farmers. However, sizeable blocks have also been purchased by commercial farmers and farm companies from as far afield as Cork, Tipperary and Wexford. The buyers have never seen or "laid a leg on the land" in some instances.
Westport auctioneer Olivia Needham describes these customers as looking for big farms of lesser-quality ground.
"Big marginal farms are flying out the door," Ms Needham said. "I have no problem selling them, while good grazing land in smaller parcels near towns and valued at €8,000-10,000/ac is far slower to shift."
Ballina-based auctioneer Billy Heffron has also seen a sharp rise in interest in marginal land, with buyers coming from the strong farming areas in the south and east.
He recently sold a 440ac mountain holding at Belderrig, Co Mayo for €330,000 or €750/ac to a buyer from Cork. He also sold a 132ac parcel of cutaway bog at Glenamoy, near Belmullet for €95,000 to a southern buyer who had never laid eyes on the property before he bought it.
Meanwhile, a 200ac farm at Geesala, Belmullet guided at €270,000 or €1,350/ac is attracting widespread interest. Mr Heffron is experiencing similar interest in 100ac of Coillte land at Glenamoy with a guide of between €85,000 and €90,000, along with a 225ac holding at Crossmolina guided at €170,000.
While it is unclear exactly why commercial farming interests in the south and east are buying land in north and west Mayo, Ms Needham maintained that such purchases made good economic sense for someone with a herd number and ready cash.
"Once you stock it at a ewe per hectare and appoint a local 'keeper', then perhaps a younger member of the family can apply for entitlements from the national reserve as an entrant farmer."
Farm sector sources explained that entitlements that deliver close to €25,000 per year can be drawn down from the national reserve under the Young Farmers' Scheme for up to 90ha.
With a further €4,500 available under ANC, overall direct payments to a young trained farmer who purchases or takes over the running of 90ha block of such marginal land could potentially top €30,000 per annum.
It is also possible that the purchase of land in the west is being used to insulate farmers with high entitlements on their home farms from the impact of convergence of BPS payments, or that the lands are being used for future carbon credit requirements, or maybe to comply with nitrates requirements.
More than 5,000 farmers currently have BPS and Greening payments in excess of €400/ha, with some entitlements worth up to €700/ha.
With the EU parliament calling for a full flattening of payments in the next CAP, and the Commission accepting that 75pc convergence is required, some farmers stand to lose substantial direct payments.
A recent examination by the Farming Independent estimated that full convergence would result in payments moving to an average of around €265/ha.
This will result in direct payments moving from farmers in the south and east to their counterparts in the west. It would see farmers in Cork, Tipperary and Wexford lose €13.8m, €9.4m and €7.7m respectively.
Industry sources conceded that a farmer buying marginal land in order to spread his/her entitlements over a larger area and thereby reducing the payments per hectare, could possibly protect payments from being clawed back and redistributed under convergence.
While the window for the registration of entitlement closed on Friday last, Olivia Needham said the purchase of cheap land as an anchor for entitlements represented good value when compared to the option of renting expensive land.
"It's a maths game," she said. "Why should a farmer down south or in the east pay €200 to €300/ac to rent naked land (without entitlements) when they can come over here and buy it outright for an extra few hundred euros per acre and stock it minimally.
"At the end of the day they get the entitlements and they own the land."