Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Joint Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine

Reform of the Common Agricultural Policy: Discussion

2:55 pm

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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I propose to address a number of issues. While we all accept that maintaining the countryside is fundamental to what this country and the European Union should be about, difficulties arise with regard to how one achieves this objective. I welcome the statement that there are many aims to the Common Agricultural Policy. Food production is one of the most important aims of CAP because none of us could survive without food. All farmers must play a role in maintaining the environment and in some areas this role is a larger part of their job than the production of food. This depends on whether they are in Natura 2000 sites and so forth. Irrespective of whether a farmer is in a Natura 2000 site, where he is subject to severe restrictions in production, or the Golden Vale, where one finds the best land in the country, public interest aims are being paid for out of the Common Agricultural Policy. To put the matter crudely, without wide environmental objectives, citizens, especially urban citizens, would stop paying their cash into the Common Agricultural Policy and the money flow would stop.

Farmers on good land are dependent on the farmers on the Natura 2000 land and all the other environmentally sensitive land to deliver the environmental goods if they want the money to continue to flow. There is a direct relationship with the Natura 2000 fund and the total fund and how well, within intensive farming and extensive farming, we maintain and protect the environment, which differs from area to area. The key statement is that the CAP needs to provides incentives and specific support for positive management of farmed habitats in Natura 2000 in Ireland. If we want farmers to continue farming marginal land, it has to pay them to do so.

That brings us to the tricky issue of ecological balance. Michael Gibbons, an archaeologist in Connemara, who is probably known to the witnesses, took us on a hill walk near Leenane during a hillwalking festival and pointed out that there is no unfarmed land in Ireland. In other words, it is the way it is because of human intervention. There is no wild land. High on hills, behind Leenane, he pointed out where the original settlement was, which was higher than the present one. What we have and what we tend to preserve is not God-made but was fashioned by millennia of people living and farming there and creating it. That gives us the challenge of the ecological balance. I will be interested to hear the views of the witnesses on the debate which is taking place in the context of the commonages. I am thinking of areas that have been subject to the efficacy of what I term prescription farming.

Prescription farming is where a Government agency, the National Parks and Wildlife Service and the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine come and put a prescription on what one can do. Most times they do not consult the people who know the dynamic of the area, that is, the local farmers who understand the damage they have done, through the ewe premium, of over stocking but also understand the perfect balance they used to maintain until they were enticed into not so good farming practices. My experience of prescription farming has been that it lurches from one extreme to the other, where we have had massive destocking in Connemara and now farmers are being ordered to put the sheep back on the hills. However, somebody forgot a problem in the equation which is that if sheep are put back on the hill rather than breeding sheep back on the hill, the sheep will run back to home and will not stay on the hill. Therefore, one cannot suddenly increase the number of sheep on a mountain pasture. We would argue that the prescription approach, often done by ecologists, who are fine ecologists but have little knowledge of hill sheep farming, has failed and has caused damage in its own right which it tried to alleviate.

With Michael O'Toole who was a soil scientist and worked for Teagasc and was also a hill sheep farmer, we spent half a day trying to argue with the NPWS that it would destock Connemara excessively. It did destock the area excessively and now it is appealing to the farmers to restock but they cannot do it. I would be interested to hear the witnesses' view whether the prescription approach is the right approach or whether we would be better off adopting the approach taken by the Burren project under Dr. Brendan Dunford which involves a participative approach where the knowledge of farmers is seen as useful. It is not instructing farmers but is a partnership between different skill sets and seeing the farmer as an equal partner with an equal skill set in the operation. The other point I would argue is that where farmers are involved - we took this approach with Comhairle na Tuaithe - they are doing what is being done not because somebody told them but because they agree with what is being done, having had an input and the arguments they put up having been listened to from an ecological point of view. I would be interested to hear witnesses' view on that issue.

The witnesses have mentioned REPS. Unintended consequences are the bane of every politician's life and should be the bane of all our lives. One does something that looks very simple and looks very good, but one gets a totally different result. REPS was great for tidy farming. It cleaned up the countryside, put up good fences, got rid of the mattresses gates and so on. It was very good for what I would call tidy farming but I am not sure if it was good for ecological farming because one of the things REPS rewarded was monoculture farming. In other words, in many cases to get the money and maximise one's take from REPS, simplifying one's farm system from, say, cattle to sheep, for example, or just to sheep or cattle and not getting involved in any kind of curadóireacht, tillage, or anything else was the easy way to comply with the REPS specification, which was very prescription driven. One got one's money and by simplifying one's system one managed one's take.

The witnesses represent BirdWatch Ireland as well as The Environmental Pillar. A point was made to me some years ago by somebody who knew the countryside that if one went back 60 years ago in non-tillage rural Ireland, and I remember this when I came to Connemara, that everybody was setting potatoes and sowing a field of oats. The elimination of ploughing and turning huge swathes of the soil in the country into any type of tillage or curadóireacht has had a huge effect on songbirds. I would be interested to know if the witnesses believe that the change in farming style from mixed farming to what is the practice in large parts of the country where there is cattle and sheep farming has had an effect on a point they highlight in their paper, namely, bird diversity and so on and whether we need to examine that.

In the previous round of CAP negotiations I had proposed that under REPS, if people were willing to set a kitchen garden or whatever, they would get €1,000 or a some specific payment for doing that. I would be interested in hearing the witnesses' view on whether the current monoculturalism of most farming in Ireland has a negative or positive ecological effect.

That leads on to the next contradiction in the witnesses' paper, and while I apologise for that, these issues are very important. I share their view in terms of the second pillar and it is fair to say that while we are all debating the first pillar, the second pillar is hugely vulnerable both in the multi-annual financial framework, MFF, and, as the witnesses pointed out, in the distribution of second pillar funds among the different countries once they through the MFF. That will pose a huge challenge in terms of maintaining even a good proportion of the farm incomes that farmers in more marginal land areas and more ecologically sensitive areas have had. That will lead to the question of land abandonment becoming widespread.

There is also a second challenge on which I would like the witnesses' thoughts. As the greening stakes are upped in the first pillar through good farming practice and then the greening element is brought in, the justification for giving a significant REPS payment, and all the REPS measures are costed, reduces to the point that if there is a high enough greening threshold in the first pillar, it will be difficult to give any significant REPS payment.

To put that in context, the REPS payment used to be €14,000 and it came down to €11,000. The AEOS payment is more like €4,000. With all of the challenges to the second pillar, I believe a REPS payment of €4,000 is more likely at this stage than a payment of €11,000, €12,000 or €14,000. What are the witnesses' views on that? The higher the greening stakes are raised the better. However, the cash needs to go with that. Front-loading the funding back into the second pillar might mean there is cash available, but it cannot it be given out because the extra payments cannot be justified. No doubt Senator Comiskey was involved in the negotiations.

To give an example, there was a very good REPS payment for farmers in hilly areas who destocked sheep. Built into that scheme was a 35% destocking of valuable Leitrim sheep, which were a lot more valuable than the Connemara sheep. However, the Connemara farmers benefited from the very good deal that was done at the time. Most of the farmers never realised, however, that written into the agreement was the fact that, through REPS, a certain number of sheep would have to come off the hills throughout the country. On average, a hill sheep was worth a certain amount of money and this was beneficial to Connemara at the time because Donegal, Leitrim and Kerry sheep would be a lot better than the poor old sheep we have in Mayo and Connemara. The costing for the hill sheep was written into the agreement.

The more the destocking fits into the first pillar, the less justification there can be for such a measure in a new REP scheme. Therefore, there is a slight contradiction when we come to the core issue of the greening in the first pillar. We cannot then say that despite that, there should be a huge REP scheme. When it comes to REPS, Europe is fairly hard-headed and it will demand that the REPS money is justified by the taking of some extra environmental action.