Hill farmers' fury over Department inspections
A spate of Department of Agriculture inspections that have cast doubt on the eligibility of marginal land and commonage for EU direct payments have sparked a furious reaction from farm organisations and environmental groups.
In an open letter to the Minister for Agriculture, Simon Coveney, which is carried in the Farming Independent today (page 8), the Irish Natura and Hill Farmers Association (INHFA) has accused the Department of using the inspection process to significantly reduce the area of marginal land that is eligible for direct payments.
The latest controversy stems from inspections of commonage land in the Slieve Aughty Mountains in south Galway. Farmers with commonage around the villages of Derrybrien and Peterswell received letters from the Department accusing them of overstating their eligible area by over 50pc.
The Department maintained that inspections of the commonage ground found there was significant "under-utilisation" of the land. However, this finding has been legally challenged by a number of the farmers affected.
INHFA pointed out that the Department inspections of the Slieve Aughty commonages were carried out over the winter when the farmers working the lands had cattle removed from the hills in compliance with their commonage framework plan.
The hill farmer letter to Minister Coveney has questioned the scientific basis for the inspections' findings of "under-utilisation" and accused the Department of seeking to cut the total area of hill and marginal land that is eligible for Area Aid payments and other EU schemes.
"Farmers on commonage land are still governed by their commonage framework plan and the only fair method of assessing their farming activity must be governed by the objective criteria laid down within this plan," the INHFA insisted.
The hill farmer body said the approach adopted in the inspections had undermined farmer confidence in the Department.