Forestry fine flawed says Ombudsman

The Ombudsman has returned €25,000 to a Kerry farmer.
The Ombudsman has returned €25,000 to a Kerry farmer.
Darragh McCullough

Darragh McCullough

Hundreds of farmers will be reviewing fines and clawbacks by the Department of Agriculture following a decision by the Ombudsman's office to return €25,000 to a Kerry farmer forced by the Forest Service to stump up years of payments after his woodland was destroyed by flooding.

"This case should never had gone to the Ombudsman," said the IFA's forestry chairman, Michael Fleming.

"If the Forest Service was functioning in a fair manner this could have been resolved years ago. Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident and highlights a policy to recoup payments on occurrences beyond the control of farmers".

However, the Department of Agriculture hit back at the accusations, claiming they had a duty to protect public money.

"Overpayments have arisen for many different reasons.... an overpayment is notified for recovery only where the terms and conditions of the scheme have not been complied with, e.g. where the area planted is lower than the area claimed," it said in a statement.

In response to claims that its approach had discouraged farmers from planting land, the department said that surveys showed that its policy of recouping overpayments was not identified as a deterrent.

The case published by the Ombudsman involved a farmer who planted 15ha of land in northwest Kerry.

While the Forest Service had turned down his initial application for grant-aid in 2004, the farmer won his appeal with the help of Mid Western Forestry consultants, despite a letter from the South Western Regional Fisheries Board advising the Department that part of the site was prone to flooding.

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However, the biggest change occurred when the local authority stopped maintaining local drains due to budget restrictions in 2009. This was the time when the forestry was flooded, and the plantation was lost.

The owner informed the Department, who waited until December 2013 to decide that the damage was not a force majeure, and that the farmer was obliged to pay back all the grant aid paid out on the area up to that date.

"This farmer had farmed this land all his life, and up to 2009, it had never flooded on him. So he planted it in good faith," said Nicholas Cotter of Mid Western Forestry Services.

"It is a terrifying thing for any farmer to get the letter that states that they have 30 days to pay up or else face interest penalties and have the money deducted from the next earliest farm payment.

"The reality is that in most cases the legal advice required will cost more than the money that is being claimed back. So farmers are very reluctant to take on the Department.

Similar cases

"There are hundreds of cases out there the Ombudsman would be very interested in."

The IFA's Mr Fleming added that he was getting a lot more calls in the days since the story first broke. "I've got a very similar case in another county with €26,000 at stake, and I've heard of cases where up to €52,000 was demanded by the Department," he said.

However, Mr Fleming said the situation should improve following the introduction of an Independent Appeals Office through the Farmers' Charter last year.

"Prior to this, farmers appeals were being ruled on by the same section that had caused the problem in the first place," he said.

The Department maintains that it has operated an independent appeals mechanism since 2002, and that one third of 323 cases were allowed or revised in 2014.

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