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Shed scheme could 'blight countryside'

THE controversial €900m farm building scheme could result in the countryside being blighted by the "white elephants" of unused sheds.

Agriculture Minister Brendan Smith needs at least €400m extra from Finance Minister Brian Lenihan after under- estimating the take-up of the Farm Waste Management Scheme (FWMS), which has already cost €527m.

The possibility that grants will be paid in stages or not at all has angered farmers who have already taken out average bank loans of €75,000 to build their slatted sheds and slurry tanks. Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers Association president Jackie Cahill warned any cuts to the grants would be "the single greatest act of political cowardice any of us can remember".

Irish Farmers Association president Padraig Walshe said it was "absolutely ridiculous" for Mr Smith to suggest a "late run" in payment applications by farmers had caused a strain on the Government's finances.

According to a Freedom of Information request by the Irish Independent, just one in 20 of the farmers given FWMS grant approvals were aged under 35. These young farmers accounted for 2,707 (5pc) of the 53,000 people given grant approval.

The revelation has raised fears that the countryside will be left dotted with thousands of "white elephants" as the new slatted sheds could be abandoned by many older farmers on their retirement.

Leading agri-academic Professor Alan Matthews said that even if these farmers (whose average age is 55) handed over their businesses to their sons, the demand for such sheds was likely to be far lower in the future.

He warned that the number of animals being kept in the slatted sheds could be dramatically reduced by three future developments -- an end to the EU's single farm payments in 2013, requirements to reduce numbers to comply with greenhouse gas emission laws and a new trade deal which would allow in more meat imports.

The State had been facing the prospect of massive daily fines from the European Commission if it failed to implement its nitrates directive to stop the pollution of lakes and rivers by farm waste.

The 2006-2008 scheme provided farmers with grant aid covering up to 70pc of the costs of building slatted sheds with slurry tanks to store the waste from animals housed during the winter.

It came as Mr Smith was criticised by the opposition for claiming that he could not have anticipated the level of demand for the scheme. Around 17,000 farmers have been paid, but another 17,000 still have to receive their grant payments.

Fine Gael MEP Mairead McGuinness said Mr Smith did not have the money to meet the commitments despite his department knowing how many farmers had been given grants, and how many had started work.

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