Farm Ireland
Independent.ie

Sunday 18 February 2018

Hill farmers' fury over Department inspections

Colm O'Donnell reads aloud a letter to An Taoiseach on behalf of hill sheep farmers who staged a protest outside Enda Kenny's constituency office in Castlebar, Co Mayo. Photo: Michael McLaughlin
Colm O'Donnell reads aloud a letter to An Taoiseach on behalf of hill sheep farmers who staged a protest outside Enda Kenny's constituency office in Castlebar, Co Mayo. Photo: Michael McLaughlin
Declan O'Brien

Declan O'Brien

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.

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"What this [inspection process] means is that farmers who carry out their responsibilities under their various contracts specified by the Department of Agriculture now face a penalty by the same department in the form of land being deemed ineligible after carrying out those contracts to the letter."

The implication of these departmental decisions was that farmers' reference areas were being reduced in many cases by up to 60pc and, in certain land parcels, up to 100pc, the INHFA said.

The hill farmers' position has been supported by the ICSA and a raft of environmental groups.

"This process is totally unfair to farmers on marginal land and absolutely contradicts stated EU objectives of maintaining a biodiverse, environmentally sound and visually beautiful landscape," said ICSA president Patrick Kent. .

"Farmers are at their wits' end trying to make sense of an increasingly bizarre set of regulations. It is totally unfair that a farmer can no longer reasonably be sure of what area he is farming and worse still, is likely to be penalised for being unable to measure the unmeasurable," he said.

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