The Department of Agriculture has been forced into an embarrassing climb down after pursuing a farmer for the repayment of a €25,000 forestry grant when the trees were destroyed by flooding.
An investigation by the Ombudsman raised serious questions over why officials sought the grant back from the farmer.
The department maintained the man knew his land in Co Kerry was prone to flooding when he made the application for the grant.
It also maintained that the man was partially responsible for damage to the forest.
But the department agreed to drop the repayment demand after an investigation by the Ombudsman found the flooding was “a natural disaster that was outside the man’s control”.
Ombudsman Peter Tyndall said: “Where people apply for and receive grants in good faith, they should not be reclaimed.
“This is particularly so in this case where the farmer lost his crop through no fault of his own and was hit with the double blow of a bill from the department. I'm glad we were able to put things right.”
In a case summary report published today, the Ombudsman said it acted after receiving a complaint from the farmer, whose identity has not been revealed.
The farmer received €25,000 from the department through the Afforestation Grant and Premium Scheme to cover the cost of establishing a forest.
Department officials inspected the man’s land and approved his grant in 2004. But the forest was destroyed by severe flooding in 2009.
According to the Ombudsman’s report, when the farmer realised the extent of the damage he contacted the department in 2010 looking for advice.
The department stopped his payment and did not make a decision about how it was proceeding for nearly three years.
In January 2013 the department demanded repayment of the grant of over €25,000, in full, within one month.
The Ombudsman found that the farmer’s land was surrounded by canals which form part of a local drainage network.
Kerry County Council was responsible for maintaining the drains feeding this network.
But the local authority stopped draining the canals around 2009 because of damage caused by floods.
It said that it could not maintain the local drainage network each year because of budget restrictions.
The Ombudsman found that the drains on the farmer’s land were satisfactory but could not work properly because the local drainage network was not being maintained.
The report said department demanded repayment because the farmer had removed trees from the land and the farmer had not said in his original application that his land was subject to flooding.
The department also believed the farmer was aware of the risk of flooding and that it was his responsibility to comply with the conditions of the scheme.
Officials felt it unreasonable for the man to rely on the actions the local authority to comply with his obligations.
The farmer appealed the department’s decision and provided evidence that the flood destroyed the trees and caused damage to his land.
The local authority confirmed that the severe rainfall, high tides and excessive amounts of material in the drainage channel had prevented proper drainage, which was outside the man’s control.
Subsequently a department official confirmed that the trees had been removed as a result of the flooding.
The Ombudsman discovered that the South Western Regional Fisheries Board had written to the department in May 2004 advising it that part of the site may be subject to flooding.
This was before the department approved the grant in August 2004.
The farmer told the Ombudsman that he had no knowledge of the board’s report.
A forestry inspector from the department had visited the man’s land in May 2013 and said that it was a case of “force majeure”, an event that could not be reasonably anticipated.
However, this was overturned by the department in December 2013.
The Ombudsman found the department was trying to hold the farmer responsible for something about which he was unaware and over which he had no control.
He asked the department to review the man’s case, after which it decided not to proceed with efforts to recover the €25,000.