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Friday 19 January 2018

Minister's directive on burnt ground sparks farmer fury

Colm O'Donnell, INHFA chairman at a previous protest outside Enda Kenny's constituency office in Castlebar, Co Mayo. Photo: Michael McLaughlin
Colm O'Donnell, INHFA chairman at a previous protest outside Enda Kenny's constituency office in Castlebar, Co Mayo. Photo: Michael McLaughlin
Louise Hogan

Louise Hogan

Farm organisations and the Department of Agriculture are on a collision course over the eligibility of illegally burnt ground for direct payments.

The clash was sparked by a direction from the Department that landowners with illegally burnt land must remove this ground from their 2017 Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) application.

Farm bodies have reacted furiously to the order, pointing out that blameless landowners could face delays in receiving direct payments as a result of the Department's move.

The INHFA's Colm O'Donnell said the Department could only withhold CAP payments from applicants if it was proven that the person in question "lit the fire".

Read also: It's only a matter of time before there is another wild fire outbreak, farm leaders warn

Mr O'Donnell pointed out that at a recent Oireachtas Committee hearing on the question of wildfires, a senior Department official, Dr Kevin Smyth, stated that: "No farmer who is a victim of burning, with somebody else having set the fire, will be penalised."

The INHFA stance was supported by the IFA and ICSA.

ICSA rural development chairman Seamus Sherlock has questioned the legality of the Department's approach.

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"Fires are caused by a variety of reasons and can spread into parcels of land owned by many individuals.

"There is the potential that a cohort of farmers will face penalties through no fault of their own. The Basic Payment is too important an income source to be raided in this manner," he maintained.

Meanwhile, IFA hill committee chairman Pat Dunne has described the possible withholding of direct payments as "totally unfair".

"There must be due process that allows farmers to maintain payments where fires damaged their land through no fault of their own.

"Unless such a process is put in place, farmers with burnt land are being unfairly victimised and have no way to achieve a fair assessment of their situation," Mr Dunne said.

Ruling

However, the Department has held firm on its ruling.

"The Department's guidance document on land eligibility clearly states that land subject to burning outside of the closed period is ineligible under the various support schemes. Where a person has submitted their 2017 Basic Scheme application, and illegally burnt land is included in that application, they should now proceed to remove this land from their application," the Department stated.

Roscommon-Galway TD, Michael Fitzmaurice, accused the Minister of State, Andrew Doyle, of provoking "confusion and anger in farming circles" by warning that burnt ground was not eligible for direct payments.

Read also: Over €6m was spent by State tackling gorse fires in recent years

Minister Doyle's comments followed a visit to the Cloosh Valley, Co Galway which was badly affected in the recent wildfires.

"Agricultural and eligible forestry land identified as burnt illegally…will be deemed ineligible for payment under the 2017 Basic Payment and other area-based schemes," Mr Doyle insisted.

Fianna Fail spokesperson on agriculture Charlie McConalogue called on the Minister to give a commitment that innocent victims of illegal burning will not incur penalties to their farm payments. He said concerned farmers had contacted him after fires had spread on to their land.


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