Hill farmers facing a €50m hammer blow on payments
Stricter inspections could make 250,000 hectares ineligible for Basic Payment and ANC cash, claim farm leaders
Hill farmers and stock owners with marginal land potentially stand to lose more than €50m in direct payments as a result of a new round of land eligibility inspections by the Department of Agriculture, it has been claimed.
The Farming Independent has learned that the inspections start this week with far tighter criteria being employed by officials regarding ground that qualifies for payments.
The Irish Natura and Hill Farmers Association (INHFA) has claimed that stricter eligibility rules could remove up to one-third of hill and marginal ground, or around 250,000 hectares.
Vincent Roddy (pictured) of the INHFA said this would cost affected farmers €150/ha under the Basic Payment Scheme, and a further €96/ha in ANC payments. The full €246/ha loss across 250,000 hectares, even allowing for deductions, would exceed €50m.
The INHFA claim that upland commonages with significant heather cover could be deemed ineligible - although much of this ground is designated for environmental schemes and farm practices such as mowing, spraying and topping are prohibited.
In a hard hitting letter to the Agriculture Minister and other Oireachtas TDs, the INHFA expressed alarm regarding the latest land eligibility inspections on commonages.
It maintained that inspectors have been advised to make as much land as possible ineligible and also claim that in-service training of inspectors on new criteria has already taken place.
However, Agriculture Minister Michael Creed has strongly refuted the hill farmers' concerns. He said the Department was obliged to carry out a minimum level of inspections under various schemes and "no sector" would be targeted.
"Under BPS it is 5pc of applications, they'll be carried out on a random basis across the country and there will be some on commonages but none disproportionately on any particular area," said Mr Creed.
He acknowledged that concerns had arisen from the recent fires that damaged commonage land. He assured victims of illegal burning that they would not be penalised.
But the hill farmers concerns have been backed up by Roscommon-Galway TD, Michael Fitzmaurice.
"It is my information that a lot of land will be wiped off the map if the proposals I have heard about are accepted," said Mr Fitzmaurice.
"For example, wet land that can be accessed by sheep but not by cattle would be ruled out for any grants and the whole area of mountain land and commonage is in the firing line now. This is a totally unacceptable situation," he said.
Mr Fitzmaurice said that lands that had been prone to seasonal flooding over the last few years could also be deemed ineligible.
The INHFA has requested an urgent meeting with Mr Creed regarding the eligibility inspections and have also requested the following information:
The criteria the inspectors have been directed to apply in respects of eligibility and agricultural areas;
A copy of the training notes issued to their inspectors;
What criteria has being given to inspectors in relation to the eligibility of lands affected by the birds and habitats directive or designated Natura 2000 sites.
It is understood the Department inspections are to be completed ahead of an EU audit which is scheduled to take place the end of July. However, the INHFA questioned the rationale behind the inspections and confirmed that it is considering making a formal complaint to the EU Commission regarding the Department's commonage policy.
"Who would benefit if the Department were to make large areas of hill and commonage land ineligible," Mr Roddy asked. "Is there an agenda to ensure a transfer of money to larger farmers on higher payments in other parts of the country?"
Mr Roddy warned that the removal of payments on commonages would undoubtedly result in land abandonment. He said this would have direct consequences for the viability of many rural communities that were already struggling to survive.
However, he cautioned that abandoning the commonages ran counter to stated EU rural policy which stipulated that these farming systems and the habitats they maintained should be supported.
And he added that neglected hill farms would pose a serious fire hazard in the future.
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