A massive increase in land designations under the EU Biodiversity Strategy represents a serious threat to farming communities in the west of Ireland, the Irish Natura and Hill Farmers Association (INHFA) has warned.
Launching a national campaign to raise awareness around the implications of the new EU land designation strategy, the INHFA president Colm O'Donnell said the move would significantly curtail the farming activities of thousands of land owners across the midlands and down the western seaboard.
Mr O'Donnell pointed out that the EU Biodiversity Strategy will increase the area of land designated SAC or SPA from 13pc to 30pc, as well as introducing a new 'Strictly Protected' designation which will be applied on a minimum of 10pc of the state's land base.
The 'Strictly Protected' designation was described by Mr O'Donnell as a "rewilding proposal by another name" which is targeted at carbon-rich wetlands and peatlands.
"This designation will see large areas of land sterilised, as farming activity is ended," Mr O'Donnell said.
He added that it will also have serious implications for rural communities in these areas as all planning and development will be prohibited.
"The current SAC and SPA designations are Category 4 designations, but the proposed Strictly Protected designation is a Category 1A designation, making it the most restrictive and one that requires the removal of any human activity and cessation of all projects including roads, water treatment plants etc," Mr O'Donnell told those attending the launch at Keenagh, Ballina, Co Mayo.
The increase in SAC and SPA designations from 13pc of the country's farmed area to 30pc will mean thousands of additional farmers will have to contend with the strict requirements and limitations that this involves, with 39 farm actions -including fencing - requiring consent before they can be undertaken.
"The 39 actions requiring consent have restricted the ability of farmers to farm their lands and very often failed to deliver positive environmental outcomes. This has happened due to the lack of regard given to current farming systems, many of which are low input and extensive," Mr O'Donnell explained.
Suggestions that a new scheme to re-wet peatlands is being considered as part of the next CAP programme has fuelled fears among farmers working marginal ground that they will be forced to cut output in order to reduce the state's carbon emissions from agriculture, while further expansion by intensive dairy farmers will be facilitated by the nitrates derogation.