Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Tuesday, 26 February 2013
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine
Use of Commonage Lands: Discussion (Resumed) with UFA and IFA
I welcome the representatives of the United Farmers Association, Mr. Bertie Wall, president, and Mr. Sean Guerin, deputy president. I thank them for coming before the committee today to discuss commonages. Before we begin I draw to their attention the fact that, by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. However, if they are directed by it to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against a person, persons or an entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. I understand Mr. Wall will make the opening comments for the United Farmers Association.
Mr. Bertie Wall:
Thank you, Mr. Chairman, for the opportunity to address the committee on the important and relevant subject of commonages. I am not sure whether committee members have read the document, but if not I will read it through.
Commonage land is land that is owned collectively or by one person over which land other persons have rights. That is the fundamental aspect of commonage as opposed to private land. These rights are exercised in common with all other rights holders. Common rights include the following, some or all of which may apply on a commonage. Pasturagerelates to the right to graze cattle or sheep. Turbaryrights relate to the right to cut peat or turf for burning as domestic fuel, and estoverrights relate to the right to take wood or timber for firewood. Commonage land legally is the common property of all the shareholders and its use by any other requires the express permission and approval of the shareholders. One very important point with regard to grazing rights is that the grazing right is only proportionate to the share of the land owned. According to the Central Statistics Office, CSO, figures for 2012 the total commonage area in the Republic of Ireland is 422,415 hectares, which accounts for 8.5% of the total utilisable land of the State. The CSO also provides a figure of 440,000 hectares in the same 2012 report. We are talking about a sizeable amount of land of approximately 500,000 hectares. The only other country where commonage is of such major importance is our near neighbour, Scotland, where there is 591,901 hectares of commonage, which amounts to 9% of the total utilisable land of that country. Currently 33% or 360,360 hectares of all commonage grazings in Scotland are unclaimed. In Ireland huge issues arise around the question of dormant or absent shareholders with some commonages having as much as 80% dormancy. The figure was extracted from the European forum on nature conservation and pastoralising report from June 2012.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s most commonages were subject to serious overgrazing, mostly by sheep. That was as a direct result of EU agricultural policies operating at the time. In 2002, alarmed at the scale of the damage being done, a successful case was taken to the European Court of Justice which found that Ireland was in breach of EU nature directives. In particular the birds directive for permitting the destruction of red grouse habitats. In fact, the EU Commission at the time threatened to stop all agricultural support payments to Ireland's commonages unless serious corrective action was taken. The State was obliged to take immediate corrective measures to restore the damage caused by overgrazing and the restrictions were to remain in place until there was a near complete recovery of vegetation cover, flora, fauna and ground structure. Most of the restrictions were to remain in place until the end of 2013. As a result there are now around 4,500 commonage framework plans, CFPs, covering around 440,000 hectares. The figures were provided by the CSO. The framework commonage management plans have been implemented, monitored and re-monitored over the past ten years and as a result it can be fairly stated that commonages still vary in terms of their grazing conditions, that is, some are overgrazed, some are undergrazed and others have sustainable grazing involving the restoration of heath and heather and calcareous grasses. All of the above mentioned commonage management plans were carried out to meet the requirements of EC Regulation 1698 (2005) as amended by EU Regulation 65 (2011). Members are probably aware that an EU regulation is the most direct form of EU law. As soon as they are passed, regulations have binding legal force throughout every member state of the Union, equal to all national laws. National governments do not have to take any action to implement the regulations in their national parliaments; they are automatically transposed into national law.
In July 2011 the Minister for Agriculture, Deputy Simon Coveney, unveiled his plan requiring farmers on commonages to increase stocking rates. The plan set minimum and maximum numbers of ewe equivalents required to graze each commonage. It also included a draft agreement requiring each commonage shareholder to state their 2013 stock numbers. Included in this communication was the usual threat to farmers that failure to comply with the conditions and specifications, as outlined, would have serious impacts on their single farm payments and other payments. The Minister made it clear at the time that the plan was in support of his concept of what is termed the "active farmer". He further stated his intention to link future payment supports to the concept of the "active farmer" - an as yet undefined entity.
The United Farmers Association has the most serious concerns as to whose benefit the changes in stocking rates are meant to support. There is a deep suspicion that this is an underhand attempt to deprive thousands of west of Ireland farmers of their farm supports. In the west, commonage represents 19% of the total farmland area. At present there are 4,500 commonage framework plans covering the 440, 000 hectares of every individual commonage. The commonage framework plans being implemented at present were drawn up after careful study and physical examination of all commonages by geologists, agronomists and agricultural professionals and were only completed in 2005. With the full-scale implementation of the CFPs a new agricultural scheme was introduced - the National Parks and Wildlife Service farm plan scheme for designated areas and commonage. Under this plan farmers were compensated for the quite severe destocking, in some cases by as much as 30%, which had to be carried out. Farmers in the REP scheme on commonages got an additional €7 million a year and those farmers on commonage not in the REP scheme received an additional €5 million from Dúchas.
The whole situation is now in a state of confusion and uncertainty. The new plan from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and the National Parks and Wildlife Service now sets new stocking rates for each and every individual commonage, many of which stocking rates make no sense or logic. Contiguous commonages side by side will have very different stocking rates. Who agreed the stocking rates? Agreement on the stocking rates will have to have as a condition of the new scheme the full consent and agreement of all the rights owners on each individual commonage. However, in some cases there is an 80% absentee rate of rights owners. In addition, we have a property regime which invariably implies and encourages rivalry and non-excludability, and in many cases outright hostility on how that is to be achieved. We do not know what professional assistance, if any, will be provided. In the event that universal agreement cannot be reached between all the rights owners the present stock owners on commonages must undertake to provide the total stock numbers designated for the commonage. Therefore, if a commonage has 32 rights owners and at present only two stock owners farm their individual shares, unless there is total agreement those two stock-owning farming rights owners will be forced to provide all the stock to cover the requirements of the other 30. The stock must be of four specified breeds of sheep or cattle. One could ask whether there is sufficient stock for the purpose. Facilitating agreement even if it is possible to trace all the rights owners can take a considerable amount of time and effort. Experience in England has shown that this process took a minimum of one to two years. A more realistic timeframe to bring about such revolutionary changes on Irish commonages in terms of management structures, stocking and changes in stock types and breeds is probably five to ten years.
With increased stock on commonages bordering on county roads, who is going to complete the major fencing requirements, as newly introduced stock will simply wander all over the roads and neighbouring farms? Is there a market for all the extra light hill lamb that will be produced?
In the view of the United Farmers Association, UFA, there is a serious danger that the Minister's plan could concentrate all future payments on wealthy well-funded large operators who can afford to finance the restocking and management expenses that will be required and as a result deprive payments to those who cannot. It is the settled policy of the UFA that farmers, no different from any other citizen of this land, have a legitimate expectation of fair and equal treatment similar to all other citizens and that sudden and unreasonable changes of policy by public authorities which have as a consequence unforeseen and possibly damaging effects on the incomes and welfare of certain categories of citizens are null and void and therefore open to challenge. The practicable aspects of implementing a plan requiring such dramatic changes to a long established way of life by the Minister and the National Parks and Wildlife Service must only be carried out on the basis of ongoing consultations and discussions on the timescale and the implementation procedures for this scheme with farmers and their planners.
The Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine fiddled with this scheme from July of 2011 to November and sought to impose it on unsuspecting farmers and planners, giving little over two weeks to get it all sorted out under threat of withdrawal of payment, and then had to withdraw it. This is not the way to achieve success. It is UFA policy that the following are the absolute minimum requirements for the implementation of this scheme: first, commonage land needs targeted rural development measures and programmes to sustain this irreplaceable natural resource and avoid land abandonment with the inevitable consequential environmental disaster. Second, all development measures and programmes to be implemented in consultation with all stakeholders. Third, the collective agreement concept for the future governance of Irish commonages is a potential minefield. If not handled with care and attention to the sensibilities on the ground it will lead inevitably to conflict between different classes of stakeholders. Fourth, the concept that all farmers in a particular commonage are to be held responsible collectively for the actions or, indeed, inactions of all stakeholders on that commonage is an alien concept and, in the view of the UFA, is morally and legally deficient. Fifth, to penalise an individual farmer who has maintained the required minimum or maximum stocking rate because of under-grazing of that particular commonage due to dormant shares or the unwillingness of absent stakeholders to participate in any agreement is simply wrong and unjust. Sixth, with new breeds of stock being introduced which will require new husbandry practices, a five to ten year lead-in period is necessary. The whole farming system on commonage farms will have to be looked at. This may involve a change in the breeding and systems of sheep production to, for example, the production of light hill lambs for a target market or breeding replacements for lowland flocks. Seventh, the control of heather and scrub through burning and swiping has to be provided for. Eighth, the impact of all of the foregoing on recreational users of commonages and agri-tourism must constitute an important factor for consideration.
Ninth, native commonage sheep flocks have a strong home range tendency or natural instinct that is known as hefting. These native sheep flocks will graze selected areas without the need for fencing and with only the need for occasional shepherding. A further hidden advantage is that having become accustomed to grazing particular areas of the commonage these sheep develop resistances to certain parasites, mineral deficiencies and plant toxins. The knowledge of flock boundaries, location of optimal grazing and the location of shelters is passed on from ewe to lamb. A successful heft is normally dependent on sufficient numbers of ewes in adjacent hefts to maintain flock boundaries. All of this is an essential element in the farming of commonages and must be preserved as far as practicable, given the need for re-stocking under the new management regime.
Tenth, it has to be allowed that it may take four to five generations of newly introduced sheep with the need for constant shepherding to achieve a heft system of control and management. Eleventh, until the newly introduced sheep flocks have achieved a heft situation the serious problems of wandering, trespassing, wandering onto public roads, theft and rustling have to be provided for. Twelfth, there will be a massive financial loss to the Irish Exchequer if this new management system is not implemented properly and commonages currently unfarmed were to be permanently excluded from the national payments from the EU. Farmers will require financial assistance to buy dormant shares.
Point No. 13 is that adverse possession, or squatter's rights, as in section 49, does not operate in a commonage situation as it would in privately owned abandoned land after a 12 year period. Dormant shares have to be purchased. It is not acceptable to the UFA to allow cheque book individuals take advantage of this situation. Point No. 14 is that the costs of employing full-time shepherds to heft newly introduced sheep for a period of five years and the secretarial, accounting and bookwork costs associated with the new management system have to be provided for in the implementation of the new regime.
Point No. 15 is that the costs of tracking devices to help recover microchipped sheep which have been stolen here to be covered. Sheep stealing is a serious problem in certain remote parts of the State. Point No. 16 concerns an undertaking that there will be sufficient Garda resources in rural areas to protect the valuable resource of hefted sheep and the specific cattle breeds suitable to remote commonages. This is also of serious concern at present.
Finally, point No. 17 is that, specific to County Donegal, a binding undertaking is required with regard to the situation where State owned red deer from a national park in the north of the county are devouring whole areas of commonage without let or hindrance. Farmers cannot be expected to maintain any kind of stocking rates in this ridiculous situation.
I welcome Mr. Bertie Wall and Mr. Seán Guerin to the committee. We had a very interesting discussion with the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine on this subject last week.
Mr. Wall has listed many things that must not be done. I agree with him. I think all members of the committee would agree that if a farmer has destocked and has to restock the only way to do that is to breed the sheep back on the hill over time. Allowing that 0.7 of a lamb survives for every ewe and that 50% of surviving lambs will be male and 50% female, one can see that increasing stock will be slow over time. In some years, the replacement rate will be even slower than that. Whatever restocking has to be done must take account of those calculations. We cannot suddenly go to a minimum stocking number that is far above what is on the hill.
The issue of agreement on the hills fascinates me. There was some tacit agreement on many hills and very little on some others. In the past, farmers figured things out. There were not so many fighting neighbours as might have been thought. When people are forced to do something at risk of a serious penalty, even if only one in ten commonage users gets into trouble that amounts to a large number of people. All it takes is for one very awkward person in an odd commonage here and there to put us into a really difficult situation. In the commonages I am used to, one could have up to 150 or 200 people.
We also have the issue of three types of user or owner. There is the owner with the sheep or cattle on the commonage. Then there is the owner who does not put sheep or cattle on the commonage but puts them on his area based payment and claims on them, with the risk that he will not get a payment if the new regime comes in. Finally, there is the owner who has never put anything on the commonage and has not claimed. There is a big number of those. It is a pity we cannot bring those into operation. If we could, the amount of land that would suddenly appear for area based payments in the west of Ireland, in upland areas and in the hills of Wicklow and Tipperary would suddenly increase. It is regrettable to see land not being used in any way.
The legal situation of people who own these shares, even if they are in the names of grandparents or great grandparents, is a difficulty. Has the UFA an answer to the problem or dormant shares? If someone gets commonage into his name he will have a right to put sheep on the hill. In many cases, such people have no right to single payment. I am wondering how we do this.
Is the UFA party to the discussions with the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine? If so, Mr. Wall and Mr. Guerin might let us know how they got on with the Department, compared to this committee. We had a constructive meeting last year with the Department and the National Parks and Wildlife Service. I was much more assured after that meeting than I had been beforehand. Has the UFA been in discussion with the Department and have some of the issues that were of concern moved on or where are we now?
There is no need to do this in a hurry. The framework plans are still in place so there is no danger of Europe coming after us. Whatever follows the framework needs to be worked out.
Until now, some outsider gave a prescription based on numbers. When Dr. Brendan Dunford from the Burren Farming for Conservation Programme appeared before the committee, he came at this from a different point of view. He said the output should be decided in the context of what condition the land should be in and the farmer should be allowed to figure out how he gets it there, taking variables into account such as wet and dry seasons, good and bad years and the fact that stock has to be increased and described, according to many factors. There is a little trial and error in achieving the optimum stocking level. What would be the acceptability of Department not being able to tell the farmer how many sheep he should have? The only person who can figure that is the farmer because he knows the land best. The condition in which the owners of the commonage have the land at the end of the year should be the only measure as to whether a farmer complied with GEAC rather than the Department applying the wrong stocking density, which it has in the past, leading to overstocking and, in recent years, understocking, thereby creating a new set of problems. If officials had said to the farmers that they should get the land into good order and they did not care how this was done, they might have achieved a better environmental outcome.
I thank Mr. Wall and Mr. Guerin for the presentation, which was well laid out, particularly the legal position on commonages and so forth. That is helpful for all of us who make decisions. Everything on a commonage is dependent on a commonsense approach because, as Deputy Ó Cuív said, one person can cause havoc as a shareholder on a commonage. The west is probably the area most affected, given 19% of the land there is in commonage and that creates problem.
In July 2011, the Minister made it clear that his plan was in support of the concept of active farmers. It is difficult to get a definition of an "active farmer". What is the UFA's definition? Some people believe it is a full-time farmer whose entire income comes from the land while others believe it applies to those who have an income from the land and who through no fault of their own have had to take up off-farm employment and so forth. The definition, however, varies from person to person.
Mr. Wall made an excellent point about the collective agreement concept potentially leading to conflict between different classes of stakeholders. There are dormant and semi-active stakeholders and active stakeholders who are focused on maximising their return from the commonage. I take it there is no way of resolving this legally such that the dormant stakeholder would have to relinquish his or her claim or sell his or her rights.
It is questionable to tell farmers they must have four different breeds of sheep or cattle on the mountain. It takes between five and ten years for a new breed to integrate and become accustomed to the area. Sheep know their area and they go back there all the time. They develop an immunity to diseases that may prevail there. I thank the UFA for the presentation, which was informative and helpful.
I welcome Mr. Wall and Mr. Guerin and thank them for their informative presentation. The committee has had a number of hearings and there has been a great deal of consultation. There are many problems, particularly in the context of destocking with the wheel having gone full circle since 1997 when we were asked to take our sheep off the hills first. Many farmers purchased green land, put up sheep sheds and so on. As everybody has said, it takes a number of years to get the sheep used to being back on the hills. We witnessed something similar on the Cooley Peninsula following the foot and mouth disease outbreak. Farmers had this problem. They had to take their sheep off the hills and they found it difficult to get the sheep to breed when they put them back. Those of us who are used to working with sheep on commonages know it takes a number of years to build up the flock on the hills. There is a problem with dormant shareholders or older farmers who cannot farm anymore but do not want to sell their share. Legally, even if they want to sell the share, they cannot do so because it is attached to the holding in the lowlands.
We have to have collective agreement and we need all the shareholders to sit around the table. That could be aided by a departmental of Teagasc official or a REPS planner to guide them in the right way because there will be difficulties among the farmers. We have to get them around the table and then they can decide what they want to do in the future. For example, they could permit a neighbour or a younger farmer to graze their share. That would be the sensible approach to this.
I thank the gentlemen for their presentation. Great thought went into it. Mr. Wall outlined the UFA policy objectives. I take it there is a problem with commonages in some areas that needs to be addressed and Mr. Wall has set out the many challenges facing the Department in addressing them. He set out the UFA's concerns. Deputy Ó Cuív referred to the committee's dealings with departmental officials and the NPWS last week. Mr. Wall said all development measures and programmes should be implemented in consultation with all stakeholders. New CAP future funding streams need to be examined in the context of commonages. Different views were expressed as to how adequately that could be funded. Where they are set aside, a payment needs to be considered, if that is possible, without having a negative impact.
I agree that the collective agreement concept for the future governance of commonages is a potential minefield. While I am from County Kildare and I am at a remove from the undergrazing issues in the west, not everybody on the commonages in my area gets on and there would be difficulties in trying to reach a collective agreement. Is there a clear alternative to that? It would be just as significant a problem to steamroll everyone and tell them what would happen, from the State's point of view, because it would then be accused of pursuing a nanny state, as it would be to give everyone an equal say and not reaching an agreement. The UFA says this will inevitably lead to conflict but there will be conflict either way. If one goes in with the big stick, there will probably be conflict.
I accept that the concept of holding all farmers responsible collectively for the action or inaction of others is unfair.
That is probably linked with the association's objective that dormant shares have to be purchased. Is it fair to say that is where the association is heading? Rather than it being given to the one or two who are active the witness says it should be up for grabs and that anyone who was never in commonage previously could purchase. Is that correct? Perhaps Mr. Wall would expand on that point. In general I thank him for his contribution.
Mr. Bertie Wall:
I thank members for their questions which I will take in rotation, beginning with Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív. Our dealings with the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine have been about CAP reform to date and have been very poor as it did not want to hear our viewpoint. We have sent it our policy document and will request meetings with it. Our first priority was CAP reform.
The whole question of the absent stakeholders has to be handled very gingerly. I remember being called to Donegal, Sligo and Kerry on one or two occasions when people wanted to put afforestation on to commonages. That caused an amount of trouble. The area where the trees were to be put in place had to be fenced. The whole concept of putting fencing on a commonage was so alien to some people that it created horrendous problems. People who thought they owned shares in particular commonages and found that other people had turbary rights then objected. I foresee all these issues arising again. There may be a situation where one could rent another person's share but then a family member will object because he or she considers they have turbary rights on it. There is a huge lore of hidden problems in the management of commonages. As Deputy Ó Cuív said, the key is to take our time and give ourselves a good lead in period. If we insist on implementing all of those changes it will not be possible. First, the people whom we expect to increase stock numbers, or do it rapidly, will not have the financial resources to do so; therefore, they will have to be given time and financial assistance. Perhaps the best method, as far as possible, is to allow the farmers who want to actively farm the commonages to rent the space from other stakeholders in the commonage.
In regard to the collective agreement issue, we all know that where farmers enter into a agreement voluntarily, that is fine. If, as Deputy Ó Cuív has said, there is an element of being forced into it, farmers are suspicious of legally binding agreements and always have been. Farm owners and landowners are intrinsically very independent minded people who like to do their own business and mind their own business and mind their own patch. Therefore, a fundamental change in thinking and mental attitudes will have to be brought about to this concept which is a pretty new one. People will raise all sorts of problems in regard to the collective agreement issue. If I keep the proper stocking rate, while another guy with whom we are in agreement does not keep to the stocking rate and we will all be punished, why should I accept that? All of these issues will have to be addressed at meetings and explained to people. The matter will have to be taken gingerly.
Deputy Martin Ferris asked for a definition of what is meant by term "active farmers". Our definition in United Farmers Association is anybody who is producing from the land, whether it is cereals, animal farming, fodder for other farmers who do not have sufficient land to keep their stock and require a neighbour to provide silage or hay, or vegetables. That is our definition of an active farmer. Regardless of whether he is part-time or full-time he is actively producing something from the land. Every hectare that produces something that is saleable and worthwhile should attract the same level of payment. Our attitude is that there should be no discrimination between good land, poor land or the product produced on that land.
On the introduction of new breeds, if there is an insistence on a short period - we suggest five to ten years - for getting the stocking rates up to the specified stocking rates and bringing in new breeds, huge problems will unfold. The committee is aware that commonages are vast open areas. These sheep have no sense of place or locality and will wander all over the place. Are we going to fence the commonages, which is against the whole idea? Will we have to fence the sides of all public roads running through commonages? In a county such as Donegal let us think of the amount of fencing that would be required there. The State is reluctant to fence in its own land in the national park and allows its stock to wander all over commonages owned by private individuals. Therefore, is the State going to fund the huge cost of fencing? It is either that or we slowly introduce the sheep over a period and allow them to become hefted sheep, in other words, accustomed to the area. These are the problems. Do I have a solution to the absent stakeholders? They have to be encouraged to allow people who want to farm to rent or sell their stake to them. At the end of the day, I do not have a legal answer to those who will do neither.
There could be a situation where the person who has inherited the rights to the commonage but never activates them could make an income by renting the commonage out while the young farmer always has to pay the rent and never gets the opportunity to buy. To return to the original point of selling, I would be concerned if he was renting for a number of years but eventually had to get an option to buy. The general premise of the more active farmer is the one we need to protect irrespective of the quality of the land. I would be concerned if there was a long-term system of retaining ownership while never reactivating and just renting.
Mr. Bertie Wall:
If we take the issue slowly and if there is an option to rent, the next generation, which has never actively used that stake may consider that as it has been rented to a neighbour it should be sold to him. If we move slowly in that way, much more will be achieved, rather than going in with the heavy stick or regulation. I have seen situations like that where the older generation has rented their land and the next generation is not that interested. The children who have full-time jobs and are away from the land will agree to sell it to the neighbour but the older generation would never agree. I suggest we take our time and move slowly. One has to move slowly in terms of the restocking programme in any case because bringing in sheep that are not accustomed to the hills will require a lead-in period If we take the lead-in period as regards the animals and the lead-in period as regards the people we will achieve success but this cannot be pushed through in the space of six months.
Does the witness have figures for the number of stakeholdings for which there is no longer a living person who has a claim to the stakeholding? Currently there is a large number of dormant stakeholders. Some families have died out or moved to another country and there is no actual connection with the stakeholding. Are there any figures for those?
Mr. Bertie Wall:
It is a kind of legal limbo because the land is lying dormant and nobody has bothered to trace. The first thing that is required is to do a detailed survey of all the commonage to ascertain the figures. This has been done in Scotland and England. Precise figures are available there as to the dormancy level and the absentee level. We do not have those precise figures in Ireland. If we do that we will have a handle on the size of the problem. I am sure the numbers vary from commonage to commonage. If there are no legal heirs, can the State acquire those stakes in a commonage and disperse them similar to the way it was done by the Land Commission?
It is an interesting question.
I thank Mr. Wall and Mr. Guerin for their attendance. They have a bus to catch and I am glad we were able to facilitate their leaving on time.
Members referred to the fact the Department and the National Parks and Wildlife Service came before the committee last week. It proved to be quite a constructive engagement and it would be well worth reviewing the transcripts of it. The key underlying fact is that all commonages, and not only uplands commonages, should be in good agricultural environmental condition. Deputy Ó Cuív mentioned the Burren, where even before it became a description or phrase it was the underlying objective.
We learned from the officials last week that each of the 4,500 commonages is individual and has different circumstances with regard to numbers and the dynamic which exists. Undergrazing seems to be a bigger problem than overgrazing. Perhaps when the original framework was done it was the other way round, particularly in the west. I could probably say hand on heart that very little change has occurred in Wicklow one way or the other. There is a tendency towards undergrazing but there has never been a tendency towards overgrazing. There is a bit to go on this and the point has been made that we should make haste slowly. From listening to the Department and the National Parks and Wildlife Service last week, their focus is on trying to get this right. If good agricultural environmental conditions are the objective, it is the only way we can achieve them.
I welcome from the Irish Farmers Association Mr. John Bryan, president, Mr. Gerry Gunning, rural development executive secretary, Mr. Tom Fadian, hill farming committee chairman, and Mr. Flor McCarthy, rural development committee chairman. By virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. However, if they are directed by it to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against a person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. I have already given members notice of their responsibilities. I call on Mr. Bryan, president of the IFA, to make his opening statement.
Mr. John Bryan:
On behalf of the IFA's 90,000 members, who are spread through every parish in Ireland, I thank the committee for this opportunity to make a presentation on commonages. As the Chairman stated, joining me here today are Mr. Tom Fadian from Mayo, Mr. Flor McCarthy from Kerry, and Mr. Gerry Gunning from Roscommon.
I welcome the committee's interest in this particular issue, particularly as farmers in these areas have been very concerned about proposals to introduce new stocking rate criteria without their agreement. Discussions on a review of the commonage framework plan have been ongoing for some time, and the IFA has strongly stressed that the requirement for collective agreement on commonages is unworkable and unacceptable. It was only right that plans to introduce this were put on hold pending the introduction of greater flexibility, as the problems encountered vary from commonage to commonage.
In the context of eligibility for land, farmers have been particularly concerned where areas have been reduced following Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine inspections deeming they were not in good environmental agricultural condition. The destocking of hills ten years ago has led to some areas becoming overgrown. The time is opportune for the introduction of an upland environmental management scheme which should coincide with the implementation of new stocking rates.
Critical to maintaining farming in hill areas is ensuring the maintenance of farm incomes. Low returns from hill sheep farming mean that direct payments are a critical element of farm income. Cutbacks in recent budgets, as well as attacks on the income disregards for farm assist, have resulted in farm income pressure in commonage and hill areas. The Common Agricultural Policy after 2013 must ensure active farmers are supported by recognising the limitations of the land and the value to the environment and the socioeconomic effect of maintaining farming in these areas. This can be done through a combination of pillar 1 single farm payment and a very strong pillar 2 rural development programme supporting areas of natural constraint and an environmental scheme.
I will now hand over to Mr. Gerry Gunning, the executive secretary of the IFA rural development committee, who will make a PowerPoint presentation on the issues and proposals necessary to sustain farming in commonage areas.
Mr. Gerry Gunning:
I will be brief. We estimate a large proportion of our farmers, approximately 15,000 of them, claim commonage under various EU schemes which covers 6.5%, or approximately 3,500 ha, of the declared area for single farm payment. This land is in various counties, mainly in the west but also in Wicklow, Waterford, south Tipperary, the Cooley Peninsula and other areas. The farmers involved have a high dependence on direct payments which are a crucial element of farm income in these areas. We estimate a high proportion of farmers on commonages are on farm assist and are highly dependent on the social supports which have been in place and are now under threat. As Mr. Bryan has outlined, destocking has led to undergrazing in certain areas, and departmental inspections have led to areas being reduced. As a result, farmers have lost out on payments.
About 60% of commonages are in Natura areas. Where land is designated restrictions are incurred but that is not just about farming. It could affect other developments such as wind farming. Many of these areas are restricted. Therefore, farmers are limited in what they can do.
Cutbacks in budgets over the past four years have had a devastating effect. For example, REPS 4 was closed in 2009, REPS payments have been cut and AEOS 3 has commenced but it is much more limited than AEOS 1 and 2. The number of hectares eligible for the disadvantaged area scheme was also cut and had a devastating effect on commonage farmers because the average sized farm is larger. The farm assist disregards were cut and abolished and the suckler cow welfare scheme was also ended in the most recent budget.
With regard to farm income, the Teagasc national farm survey shows that the average family income from hill farms for 2011, which are the last available figures, was €15,441. The direct payment amounted to €16,468 so represents 106% of family farm income. Therefore, farmers are more than 100% dependent on direct payments. Obviously the figure depends on circumstances, the figure is much higher for some farmers while for others it is slightly lower. The 2012 figures are not available yet but they will be published over the next number of months. We expect the figures to be worse because prices have decreased but costs have increased substantially. The cutbacks in schemes have had a major impact in the context of hill farming.
With regard to stocking levels, the president has referred to discussions. We have highlighted certain concerns about the commonage framework plans. We have a problem with the collective agreement and we have told the Department that it would not work. There is also a question about the figures that have appeared in the Irish Farmers' Journal. Farmers have examined them and shown that some farmers would have to reduce their sheep numbers even if the land needs them. Sheep are the only mechanism that can properly manage these areas.
We have indicated a proper timeframe for whatever changes occur in stocking levels. Farmers should not be penalised while the timeframe is in place because it takes time to introduce such measures. We have suggested a wider range between the minimum and maximum. New entrants should also be catered for in the new stocking calculation, we need an annual review of the figures and we must ensure that they are correct.
There is also an issue about sheep breeds. It has been indicated that only pure mountain breeds would be allowed. Obviously there is a lot of movement on farms, particularly with cross-breeding of sheep and the same applies to cattle. The Department indicated early that cattle would not be allowed but some farmers still have cattle in the hill areas.
Finally, there is the burning issue which is critical. The legislation dictated that in two days' time farmers cannot burn their hill areas. That provision must be widened. In the North the burning date is in mid-April but here it is 1 March. That means that farmers in the North can burn and control their hills for the next six weeks. For Border areas like the Cuilcagh Mountains of west Cavan the stipulation means that farmers can burn on one side of the Border but south of the Border they cannot burn after two more days have elapsed.
The new stocking regime should be implemented now. The upland agri-environment scheme should also allow farmers to engage in a management plan. In order to get the scheme moving we suggest that a consultative committee with an independent chairman be established. Even though we have discussed the matter for the past 12 months it has not moved along. We understand that the new stocking levels and management of the hills will be a central feature of the scheme. We also need an appeals system because sometimes agreement cannot be reached on stocking levels.
With regard to CAP reform, yesterday an Irish Presidency proposal on co-efficiency for hill land regarding eligibility for the single farm payment was announced. We feel that proposal is unacceptable and that objective criteria is a better way forward because payment would be made to active producers that are not catered for in the proposal. We need a strong Pillar II funding mechanism. We also need supports for the areas of natural handicap, which will be the new name for the less favoured areas, and the upland environmental management scheme which has already been mentioned.
Cutbacks in funding has been one of the greatest problems for hill farmers. We need certainty of funding for Pillar II and the 2014-20 rural development plan. We must also have specific support for rural development, environment and disadvantaged areas schemes or areas of natural handicap.
In conclusion, the review must involve consultation, a new environmental scheme, and a strong disadvantaged areas scheme, or areas facing natural or specific constraints or ANCs, as they will be called. The Irish Presidency must ensure that payments to commonage farmers recognise active farmers and the contribution that farmers make to the environment. A management plan is required for each commonage area. Anybody, and any politician, have realised that the rules and regulations do not work and that farmers must be consulted. That is the end of the presentation.
Mr. Tom Fadian:
I wish to comment on commonages. I am extremely worried about the way the minimum and maximum levels were arrived at because they are so far away from the appropriate levels for many areas. Flexibility is the most important factor when attempting to compile stocking levels for land and must play a large role in commonages. For the past 11 years the commonage lands have been controlled by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government. Any perceived problems have not been created by the farmer concerned because he simply followed the instructions meted out by both Departments in order to accumulate his payments over the 11 year period. Previous to that experts spent four years examining every commonage across the country which amounted to close to 4,000 plots. The experts arrived at a figure and told us, as farmers, that if we followed those figures that we would have a pristine environment today. That has not been the case. The next rural development programme will span seven years and farmers should be given flexibility and allowed to farm their lands in the ways that they can manage. The farmers who farm the land know how best to do so. Today's figures for the minimum and maximum stocking levels have been set down and are rigid. No allowance has been made for different farm practices, different land types, what lands can carry, the seasonal usage of land or any of that. The areas must be flexible and people must be allowed to make decisions. It must be accepted that farmers know the best way to farm the ground and a rigid system does not help them.
There is one matter that is promising. There have been a number of submissions for an uplands management scheme. Nearly everybody across the country has made submissions of one kind or another to that effect. It is not just the farmer, but everyone in society, who can see that the farmer must be accommodated to live in that environment and to farm it.
Recently reference was made to the western seaboard. When I look back over the past 20 to 30 years, there was fishing, farming and tourism all along the western seaboard. The fishermen also farmed and provided bed and breakfast accommodation. The bed and breakfast accommodation went out of business with the building boom. Fishing had come to an end perhaps a year or two before that and had developed into a shellfish farming business in different locations. The remaining business to survive is farming. All three combined could rear a family in a village or the foothills around the mountains but given that two are lost, we must try to keep farming going in order to keep people in the villages. If the farmer is not there, then nobody will be there.
Mr. Flor McCarthy:
We welcome the decision by the Minister, Deputy Coveney, to withdraw the plans that were drawn up. As everyone has realised, they were totally unworkable. We welcome his decision to put in place an independent chairman. That must happen. Farmers in such areas are probably farming some of the most beautiful parts of the country. It would be a pity if anything were to happen to such areas. The management plan that we will put in place over the next five years will have to be backed up with pillar 2 funds and it will have to be a strong environmental programme. That is what has kept people farming in peripheral areas – disadvantaged area payments and environmental payments. The environmental scheme we have at the moment, the AEOS, is a poor replacement for REPS. Following the agreement in Brussels, we will have €313 million to put in place a proper environmental scheme. There is much concern by farmers due to the uncertainty over single payments. There is talk that their land will not be dealt with on the basis of an acre for an acre. At the moment they are facing reductions of as much as 50% because of rock and lakes, which are all beautiful landscape features, as deductions are being made for them in the single payment. We accept the situation currently but we are not willing to take any more reductions. That is one of the big concerns we have.
We need an environmental scheme because in peripheral areas in west Mayo, south Kerry or Donegal, the biggest part of one’s income is based on disadvantaged area and environmental scheme payments. In the context of the latter, I am talking about on-farm schemes. Farmers are willing to work to the plan if it is manageable but the plan being imposed would mean some farmers would have to reduce stock on hills that were under-grazed and other farmers would have to increase stock drastically. One must have the co-operation of farmers. An independent chairman and proper representation from the various areas is the way forward. We welcome the progress in that regard. We are willing to co-operate. Farmers realise all their payments are based on ground having guaranteed eligibility. That is the strongest thing we want. What we want from the process is that a person cannot arrive into our farms and decide that the ground is not eligible for payment. That is the greatest threat any farmer faces. We do not want farmers to be living in fear. We want co-operation, which is in everyone’s interest. I am glad the Minister, Deputy Coveney, recognised that there was a problem and put the plans aside.
I welcome the delegation from the IFA, in particular its president, Mr. John Bryan, as well as Mr. Gerry Gunning, Mr. Tom Fadian and Mr. Flor McCarthy. They had a significant advantage over the committee, even though we are a committee of elected representatives, in that from what they have said, they were involved in the negotiations for a year. We became aware of the plans just before the letter was ready to issue. At that stage the committee asked the Minister not to issue the letters so that the committee of Senators and Teachtaí Dála would have an opportunity to examine the proposals. I thank the Chairman for the good work he did in persuading the Minister to hold back until we had an opportunity to examine the issue in detail.
Much has been said by the witnesses. It was mentioned that cattle and sheep are required to graze commonages, but there seems to be a perception in some places that sheep are the only species to be put on a hill. I regularly get phone calls from a local farmer who reminds me that the Connemara pony is also an important grazer on mountain commonages and mountain land in general in Connemara. Cattle and sheep are complementary grazers and it is important to remember that both are required. I was a little taken aback to find out that in the small print of the budget, cattle farmers on mountain land have been cut back €137 per annum in the disadvantaged area payment if they own more than ten hectares. I wondered whether the IFA was consulted on the cutback. It took me some time to find out as the Minister kept referring to the fact that he had not cut back payments to hill sheep farmers. I asked myself why he kept mentioning sheep and when I pursued him on the issue, he eventually admitted that he had cut back payments to cattle farmers on mountains.
No allusion has been made to one issue that is crucial in terms of money for farmers. In my experience of commonages, there are three groups of people involved. First, one has the people who claim all their land, have sheep or cattle and use the commonage proactively. Then there are those who claim all their land but do not put animals on the commonage. Finally, there are those who do not claim any of the commonage land at all. The solution, as discussed previously, is for active farmers to buy out the third group.
For people who claim commonage on their area-based payment but who do not farm it, has the Department given any reassurance that it will not refuse to pay either disadvantaged area payment or single farm payment on the land? If the Department were to withdraw the payment on the land, it would be totally different from what it does for non-commonage land, which is that as long as it is kept in good agricultural and environmental condition, GAEC, it is up to oneself how one does that. One can have fields that one never puts cattle into and one still gets paid for it under the area-based payment.
If one were to force all farmers who have commonage to farm actively and at the same time put restrictions on commonages as to the amount of cattle or sheep that can be kept, then in the case of 20 farmers with an entitlement to put cattle or sheep on a hill but where only ten do so and the other ten claim for it under area-based payment, if the latter group can only be paid by putting cattle or sheep on the hill, it will mean one will go from ten farmers doing so to 20. The ten who already had stock on the hill will have to cut their numbers in half because of the limit on the amount of stock allowed. It will be a zero sum game because the Department will wind up with the same number of cattle and sheep on the hill but most of the flocks will become unviable because they will be much smaller than they were heretofore. Was the IFA given an absolute assurance that payment will continue under the new CAP on commonages where a person does not necessarily put cattle or sheep on a hill?
The point was made that hill farmers have bigger farms but in fact if low payments per hectare are anything to go by, farmers with the lowest payment per hectare also have the smallest farms. That is the experience in my constituency. There are some large hill farmers in Connemara but they are few in number. I can count them on two hands. The reality is that people with the low payments and who tend to be hill farmers have on average 32 hectares, whereas the people with the highest payments have an average of 44 hectares. The latter farms are approximately 33% bigger. On average, low payments and small size go together. That is because they are commonages. In many cases one might have 1,000 acres of land but 200 shareholders, which means each shareholder does not have much land.
Reference is made in the IFA presentation to Teagasc giving a breakdown of direct payments for hill farmers of €16,468. I presume a big slice of REPS payment is involved in that.
We know that €3,400is the maximum area-based payment. My experience is that a lot of hill farmers will be talking about a single payment of €2,000 to €3,000 so are they factoring in a huge REPS payment? Presumably, the IFA has the breakdown on that because it looks to me as if there is about €10,000 of REPS payments thrown in there for luck.
We can talk about the Department all we like but GAEC - good agricultural and environmental conditions - is the spectre at the feast. GAEC is a European requirement for the single farm payment. The Department may not mind the condition the hill is in, but if an EU auditor finds that the farm in question, which is in receipt of a payment, is not in GAEC, the payment could be stopped. I understand from the Department that that is the crux of the matter.
I share the witnesses' concerns about the collective agreement, but how will we deal with the European spectre at the feast? We have a lot of work to do to get around how we will square off the GAEC, which involves farmers working together in a commonage, while on the other hand avoiding some imposed collective agreement that is impossible to obtain because there is one awkward person in a commonage. I do not have an easy answer to this question. It might be fairly innocent of us to think that Europe will accept that an individual farmer was not to blame. We must consider this matter.
We are all obsessed about sheep numbers but no other farming sector in the country determines one's stock level. A REPS plan might do so but that is between a farmer and the REPS planner. However, no stock numbers are laid down by the State to get GAEC or any other conditions. Farmers obtain GAEC and are measured on their output. In the case of sheep farming, however, the State is saying what the input must be, and the minimum or maximum input may be wrong. Farmers may be forced out of GAEC whereas if they were left with the responsibility of getting GAEC, they would know what their hills can carry and how the seasons vary as well as knowing a good year from a bad one.
How wedded is the IFA to this concept of arbitrary numbers being built in? If we change the grazing patterns of sheep, it could result in over-grazed and under-grazed sections on the one hill. What would the IFA think of putting the onus back on farmers to get the hills into good condition? They should decide stock numbers and how and where to graze the sheep in order to avoid all the things that have caused problems over the last 30 years. If we all went back 40 years when nobody interfered - neither the Department, Europe nor the United Nations - hills generally were in very good condition. It was only when outsiders started interfering by introducing grants that we got the conditions wrong.
We have been giving in too much on this particular point. I am surprised that the farming organisations are willing, after ten years of trying numbers games, to go along with this very prescriptive number. As a Minister, I purposely did the first de-stocking programme and would have preferred to persist with that method of 30% across the board. I did not say, however, that farmers could not sell over and back. My idea was that the farmers themselves would find a level within hill areas. If a farmer had de-stocked too much, he could buy from a farmer that was still over-stocked. We could get GAEC that way rather than trying to pretend that all these are discrete patches of hill on which sheep graze.
I fully agree with Mr. Bryan on the issue of sheep and cattle breeds. The latter is as big an issue because there are a lot of Charolais crosses in hill areas now. It is important to get that right.
I am a bit baffled by the talk of an environmental management scheme and the approach that, in some way, pillar 2 is the hill man or woman's panacea. If one sets up an agri-environmental scheme that will be an optional REP scheme, but the farmer will not get paid unless the hill is in GAEC, what will that scheme do, therefore, to get the greening and single payments? Before receiving such payments, farmers' land will be required to be in good agricultural and environmental condition, or GAEC.
I am surprised the IFA is going for a concept of some other scheme on another level, which hill farmers will have to go through in order to get their basic farm payments. I would have thought that, in view of the damning figures that hill farmers are losing money in good years, the simple way of resolving this issue would be to give a fair and equitable single payment. The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and the National Parks and Wildlife Service have made it absolutely clear that, in European terms, high nature value farming is of huge international importance. The EU is very concerned about under-grazing and land abandonment, so hill farming must be profitable if people are going to continue with it. I thought the IFA would demand such measures for hill farmers who must climb mountains up to 2,000 feet high and more in some places. In the MacGillicuddy Reeks - I do not know the height of Carrantuohill-----
It is a fair hike. The guys with the tractors on the lowlands would think it was very hard work. The answer to the problem is to pay decently for GAEC in the single payment. I do not believe there will be a significant REP scheme the next time around because with greening in the single payment, it will be very hard to justify it. I know the way Europe deals with this.
Last Thursday morning, the departmental officials explained the update on the Common Agricultural Policy. I attended the IFA dinner on Thursday evening only to be told that the Irish Farmers' Journal was reporting on a coefficient for hill land, yet the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine officials did not see fit to tell Oireachtas Members about that proposal, even though they were meant to brief us on the updated CAP position. As the IFA seems to know about this coefficient, the representatives might let us in on the secret. It is becoming like the third secret of Fatima for Oireachtas Members. They might also let us know what this coefficient for hill land is about. I always thought that, when it came to the single payment, a hectare was a hectare. There seems to be a rumour, however, that some hectares are worth more than others. I would be very interested if the IFA could clarify that for us.
I apologise for taking so much time but this matter is very important. The IFA has been involved with this for a year already so its representatives know more about it than we do. Can they tell us the IFA's definition of an "active farmer"? Is it the European definition or something else? I will be blunt about it. To me, an active farmer is one who farms his land. What he does in his free time - be it hurling or football - is his, or her, business.
Perhaps the representatives from the IFA might clarify for me, once and for all, their definition of "active farmer". My understanding from Europe is that effectively it is anyone who farms land and who is not a corporation, an airport or something else. However, something appears to be happening in farming circles to which I am not privy because I keep hearing the phrase, "active farmer", with some great weight behind it, but no one tells me what it is.
I thank the IFA delegation for its presentation today and concur with much of what was said. Mr. Tom Fadian put it very well when he spoke about the west of Ireland, the interdependency of coastal communities and so forth. I refer to the huge damage that has been done to the west in particular with the economic decline and so forth. Many young people who potentially are good farmers have been obliged to leave the country as a consequence of being unable to make a living there. The witnesses' overview has outlined well the various cuts that have hit the farming community over the past four to five years in particular. Successive austerity budgets have hit the more vulnerable and weakened sectors within the farming communities. In this context, one is talking about hill farmers, persons with smallholdings and people who are trying to scrape a living and feed their families from what is not the most desirable land. However, the biggest disgrace ever in recent budgets, for which no one can ever explain any moral reason, was the cutting of farm assist. Farm assist payments kept people alive and living on the land. I cannot understand how any Government could take away from the more vulnerable and the weakest. As Mr. Flor McCarthy will be aware, some farmers in our home county of Kerry were absolutely dependent on farm assist to try to keep food on the table. They now find themselves being absolutely crucified by what has happened.
The section in the presentation on CAP reform has put the point well that farmers need certainty of funding and of income. If this activity is to be passed on to another generation of young farmers, there must be an element of certainty to it. Part of this certainty has come about through dependency on grants and so forth and on schemes that were in place to help people to stay on the land. In addition, by being able to stay on the land on foot of the existence of the assistance available for them, farmers are producing food for the food chain at a reasonable, subsidised price. As for the reference to an average family income of €15,441, no one in any other sector would work for that amount. I acknowledge there are farmers who are making an awful lot of money but the majority of members of the farming community are on a low income. Their general contribution to society and the communities is of huge importance for this country and for its recovery, which also depends on it.
Mr. Gunning mentioned, in the review of the commonage stocking levels, a new upland agri-environmental scheme, a consultative committee and an appeal scheme, which are all interrelated. Has anything emerged in this regard from the IFA's consultations and negotiations with the Minister? Deputy Ó Cuív is correct in that the IFA has been involved in negotiations for 12 months and members have been kept in the dark about much of it except what they glean from occasional briefings from the IFA, which is what brings them up to date. It would be nice to learn some progress is being made on the review of the commonage stocking levels. In this context, members heard a presentation from the United Farmers Association earlier at which its representatives also laid out matters in great detail. Although there are obviously differences, there was considerable commonality between the two presentations.
In respect of commonages, there are dormant commonage stakeholders, some of whom simply are not taking up their entitlements or rights to use the commonage. However, I believe that many of them have died off and there is no actual connection to the commonage in question. Do the witnesses have figures to hand in this regard? Is a proactive approach being taken by the farming associations to identify dormant stakeholders who no longer exist, for want of a better expression? Were that the case and were such shares to be redistributed within the commonage, it would increase the intake for the commonage stakeholders who are working the commonage rather than having it lie dormant. As something needs to be done in a proactive fashion, has the IFA discussed this with the Government? Someone made a point that competent farmers know best how to look after the commonages and so forth. While I thoroughly agree with that point, there are people who are not competent farmers about whom I would have a different view. That said, practically all farmers of my acquaintance are competent and capable people who have the best interest in protecting the environment in which they work and do a very good job in that regard.
As for the past ten years in respect of grazing and overgrazing, a situation now is being reached in many areas where there is under-grazing. The question then arises as to how one restores hills that have been under-grazed for a considerable length of time. At a meeting last week, members heard mention of a burn-off and only yesterday, I looked back at Kerry Head and Brandon to see the whole place was on fire. While I am quite sure it was not planned, it was happening anyway. A planned approach is needed in this regard and an extension of the season for this is required. One could have the same regime as obtains in the North and could have it extend from September up to mid-April or the beginning of May. That makes sense as how could one burn off anything from last October right through until the beginning of February this year? One could burn nothing off because the ground was saturated. Is the IFA having success in its talks and negotiations with the relevant authorities regarding this issue? I again thank the witnesses for the presentation and will leave it at that.
I thank the IFA for the presentation today. I will be quite brief and note I agree with the two previous speakers in respect of most of their comments. Last week, representatives from the National Parks and Wildlife Service and the Department appeared before the joint committee. They mentioned the 4,500 individual commonages, how an individual plan was required for each one and how one could have two adjacent commonages, one of which was overgrazed and the other under-grazed and that there would be a need for different stocking levels on them. I have three short questions in this regard. How do the witnesses envisage the issue of the stocking of dormant shares being dealt with? What would be a workable plan in that regard? Would active farmers on those commonages be obliged to stock up or stock down to ensure the entire commonage was properly grazed, depending on whether it was overgrazed or under-grazed? Would an appeals process be of any use? Would it work or would it simply be another level of bureaucracy within the system? Finally, in respect of the upland agri-environmental scheme and the IFA's discussions with the Department, is there a commitment to such a scheme? Has the Department agreed to take up the matter with Europe and what progress, if any, has been made in this regard?
I welcome my former colleagues from the IFA and thank them for their submission. It was good to hear from them. Since this matter appeared in the Irish Farmers' Journal last November, there has been much talk and much fear among farmers that something would be imposed on them. Consequently, I welcome the opening of dialogue and that farmers will get an opportunity to get around the table. If I go back to my time with the IFA, the wheel has gone full circle on commonage appeals since the overgrazing and destocking of 1997 and 1998.
It is amazing what happens. As I said, the wheel has gone full circle. It is important that a good scheme is put in place. The €242 per hectare on commonages in the REP scheme was good. I would welcome a similar approach. I accept we are in difficult times and a new scheme might not be at the same level but we must aim for such a target. As other speakers have said, farmers in hill areas are on low incomes and they must be helped and supported. We must get older farmers around the table with younger farmers who are trying to get on their feet. If we do not put a good scheme in place to encourage them to get started, the young farmers will not stay and we will see further deterioration in commonage areas.
Commonages are mainly located along the west coast from Donegal to Kerry, but other areas with commonage include Louth, Wicklow and parts of the midlands. Some commonages are still overgrazed. I get lobbied regularly by farmers who have a problem with other farmers on the commonage who put more stock on it than they are supposed to, which puts pressure on everyone. Another problem is the risk of fire where commonage is under-grazed. In 2011, fires were a problem across Donegal and in my area in north Leitrim where a house was burned down. The fire occurred on wasteland and came up through a forested area and burned a lady’s house down. A second house almost caught fire but farmers spread water on it from a tanker. A real danger exists in terms of fire. We met representatives of the National Parks and Wildlife Service last week when they presented an overview of what grows on commonages after they have been burned. The quality of the grass that grows there subsequently is poor. Something must be done in that regard.
We must ensure that no payment is withheld from farmers in the meantime and that payments continue while dialogue is ongoing. We learned from the Department last week that it would be happy with any arrangement as long as the land is kept in good environmental and agricultural condition. Farmers must be facilitated by either a REPS planner or someone from the Department because difficulties arise on commonages, and given the difficulties in finding agreement among farmers, it is important to have an outside chairman for meetings to help sort out issues.
As members have said, farmers in commonage areas are on low incomes, but they spend their money locally in towns and villages. Mr. Fadian made the point well about the life of the local community. We must try to ensure that is continued into the future. We had representatives of the Burren area before the committee. We intend to visit the area. They have a good plan in place. Perhaps we could develop something similar for commonages and get farmers to adopt a plan that might provide a way forward.
I apologise as I had to attend to Seanad duties as spokesperson. Unfortunately, I had no choice but to miss part of the meeting. It was not done out of disrespect to our distinguished colleagues.
The debate on commonage is ongoing in the committee. I was particularly impressed with Andy Bleasdale from the National Parks and Wildlife Service who seemed to have a grasp of the problems. He also seemed very keen to ensure that no coercive measures would be introduced and that it would be very much a consultative and co-operative process between the Department and the farmers. As a townie looking out over the mountains around Drumshanbo and Sliabh an Iarainn, I would have thought overgrazing was the main problem, but what came across in his presentation was that under-grazing is as big a problem, if not bigger.
I am curious about the IFA’s position on addressing the issue. As Senator Comiskey said, a variety of shrub has developed due to under-grazing and a problem is emerging across the country, in particular in upland areas. What policies does the IFA have in that regard? What proposals does it believe should be introduced to address the issue, especially given that farmers – as all members have pointed out - are operating on limited incomes?
I welcome the IFA members. I apologise for being late but I had another committee meeting to attend. I am not a member of the committee but I am a guest.
I brought a delegation from Connemara and Galway IFA to meet the Minister before Christmas to explore some of the issues. Mr. Fadian was present and is aware of the Minister’s view at the time in terms of stopping the request by the National Parks and Wildlife Service for letters to issue, which caused much concern before Christmas. The minimum and maximum figures published in the Irish Farmers' Journal would also have caused much unrest, in particular the issues relating to neglected responsibility.
We had a good discussion last week with the Department and the National Parks and Wildlife Service on the issue. I asked a number of questions at the time. I put the view to the witnesses at that meeting that if a commonage is in good agricultural and environmental condition, GAEC, for example, like south Connemara, that the Department should not need to deal with individual farmers on the basis that someone is doing something right. Those who are grazing are doing it right and those who are not grazing are also correct. Therefore, if the commonage is in good GAEC there is no need to get involved. There is a need to get involved in other commonages that are not in GAEC for a variety of reasons such as overgrazing or under-grazing.
I put the figures in a simple way to the Minister at the previous meeting. If one has ten shares in a commonage of which three are dormant, four inactive – where individuals do not graze sheep - and three active, and the overall commonage is allowed 300 sheep and the three farmers have 100 sheep each, therefore the commonage is being grazed to its maximum potential by three individuals. Surely that would mean the Department would not need to examine the situation of the farmers who are inactive. The Department pointed out that the Commission will query whether it is right to pay farmers who are not grazing the commonage. I am not sure whether in such cases farmers with cattle are considered active or inactive. Deputy Ó Cuív inquired about the definition of “active” and “inactive” in that regard. I consider an active farmer to be one farming his or her land to its potential. One could not have the same stocking rate across the country because land quality differs.
I do not expect anything to be sorted out on commonages this year but it is becoming increasingly obvious that farms are being under-grazed. There are more farmers now aged over 80 than under 30. If one has a group of elderly farmers, few if any of them are grazing commonages, although there might some on smaller commonages. In effect, one could have a commonage that is not being grazed at all but where a claim is being made. What is the advice for those farmers who might be inspected this year who suddenly find that the commonage is not in GAEC because of the low level of grazing?
The Minister appeared to be supportive of liaison groups. What is the view of the witnesses on them? Do they believe they are workable? A smaller commonage with fewer shareholders is easier to deal with as one can put all of them around a table - assuming they all get on together - and thrash out a plan for stocking rates. I accept that a commonage with a larger number of people involved gives rise to particular problems. I spoke to someone who told me that the commonage of which he is a part has a 100 acre section coming down from the brow of a hill to other land where an individual goes out with a few dogs. Any time sheep come into the 100 acres, he runs them out of it to make sure for whatever reason that sheep are not allowed into that section of commonage. That is one of the unfortunate peculiarities one can find on a commonage.
In terms of dormant shares, I am not worried about individuals not taking up their shares on a commonage. People might not know they have shares or in other cases the owners might have died.
There should be an allowance for people who wish to take up their share of grazing potential and who wish to put more sheep on a hill if there are restrictions in place.
An upland agri-environmental scheme was mentioned. What sort of plans are there for that? Would it be similar to the BurrenLIFE project? Deputy Ó Cuív said he had concerns about that because he would rather see other mechanisms, such as higher single payments. There was reluctance to use the word "compensation" last time but the packages that have been sent around for years state the compensation for designation is REPS or AEOS. My view is that SACs, NHAs and SPAs prohibit farmers from doing certain things, irrespective of commonage or habitat value. If land is designated, farmers are prohibited from planting or installing new wind turbine technology, which has been causing more problems or offering more opportunities depending on one's point of view. The old REPS payment facilitated that compensation.
Questions on traditional stock were not answered the last time. The Kerry and Dexter cattle are not available in large numbers, even if commercial farmers wanted them. Why is that?
Appeals are important, no matter what the regime is. It is important the facilities exist so appeals are quick and effective.
I apologise for missing some of the presentation. I was in the Seanad contributing to the debate on child benefit.
My contact with this topic is Connemara. While I live east of Galway, where there is a very different type of farming from the area to the west, I come in contact with this issue very often. My assessment is that many rules on destocking and care for the environment have been placed on farmers in the hill areas of Connemara over the years. How effective are those destocking rules and the requirements farmers must fulfil? How much income has been lost to producers as a result of those requirements under various directives?
There is a view that as a result of all of this, by virtue of their location and the local terrain, the income of these farmers is completely controlled. As a result there is an over-reliance on direct payments through no fault of their own. Have there been any discussions with Government about a commitment to co-funding REPS and rural development programmes? What are the thoughts on this and what feedback has the IFA received on the issue?
Mr. John Bryan:
The retention of properly funded Pillar 2 rural development funding is critical to the future of farming, but co-financing from the Government is essential. While Ireland is down in Pillars 1 and 2, over the next seven years there is a commitment from the European Commission to pay €313 million, which will require national co-financing to draw down. I have discussed this with the Taoiseach and the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine. Naturally, I have no commitment at this stage but in some of the signals given, the Minister mentioned 47% co-financing but we need meaningful Pillar 2 schemes. Some other Deputies expressed concern but the European Commission has a clear view: Pillar 1 is to promote food production and create employment, while Pillar 2 is to nurture a higher standard. The commonages meet that higher standard. The greening requirement across the entire EU will be a level of permanent pasture, ecological setaside and crop rotation but this would be a higher level so there is no conflict whatsoever in paying a substantially higher Pillar 2 payment for higher greening measures.
Senator Healy Eames asked about income loss in Connemara. As Deputy Kyne pointed out, there are different commonages right next to each other. The requirements in the past did not all make sense. Some were destocked too much and now the problem is under-grazing.
There is a need for new plans but the biggest problem in Irish farming and hill farming is income. Mr. Gunning supplied the figures to show hill farmers do not retain 100% of their premium. Sheep farmers all over Ireland do not retain 100% of their income and neither do suckler farmers. Very few farmers retain the same amount of money as they draw in premiums become of compliance costs and family farm size.
Stocking should consist of sheep, cattle and horses, if necessary. That is not a problem. Deputy Kyne asked about special breeds and in the last REPS there was a higher payment for them. We would encourage farmers to stock them but they should be able to meet their stocking rate with a mixture. I do not care if they are Charolais cross, Lincoln cross or what they are as long as they graze the land.
Someone asked about active farmers. The farmers in the Gallery live on the hills. They farm sheep and cattle and they farm their share of the commonage. They do not live in another country and hardly know where the commonage is, but they actively farm it. Those farmers must be protected and they need a proper environmental scheme.
Some commonage is not grazed at all. The European Commission has the view that land that is not grazed is abandoned and should not be counted in the base area for the country. That is causing major problems in Spain, where they are talking about up to 20 million hectares that the Commission states are not being farmed and, therefore, should not be counted. Every Deputy and Senator has said that good agricultural and environmental practice means the land is farmed. It does not mean the farmer owns the land, be it in Kilkenny, Mayo or Kerry. It must be farmed actively and there would be more grazing done if it was not for faulty plans in the past.
One man and his dog is an example of why collective responsibility is lunacy where one man is being unreasonable. Should all the other people on that commonage be penalised because he is unreasonable? I have said before that the IFA absolutely rejects collective responsibility. If every Oireachtas Member was held responsible for one wrongdoer, they would have a lot of headaches. Let us be clear: collective responsibility is wrong. It is not fair and cannot be imposed on farmers.
The liaison committees can work and I accept the point made by several Members. These men know their hills and know what is a good level of stocking. There must be more liaison. Individual plans that work must be put in place.
Deputy Kyne asked about ten farmers sharing. If three of them are farming the commonage, under EU rules the three are entitled to payment.
If the other seven do not walk up the hill and are not farming it, they are not entitled to be paid under EU regulations. Deputy Ó Cuív noted how tired they become climbing the hill but they will not get tired if they do not climb the hill or farm it. Either one farms or one does not farm. The Commission does not provide payments for ownership of land but for farming and walking up a hill is being active.
To respond to Deputy Kyne, I welcome the meeting between the Minister and a number of Deputies who asked him to stop the letter being issued. It was an unreasonable letter that did not make sense.
On Senator Mooney's point, the National Parks and Wildlife Service will have to liaise much more with farmers on the ground. I am pleased that the Senator got a sense there would not be any coercion involved in the process.
Undergrazing and land abandonment are major problems. In Scotland, almost 1 billion ha of land which people used to walk have been taken over by gorse. People no longer walk on this land because sheep no longer graze on it. Scotland also has a major problem with lupus. Sheep used to act as magnets for ticks, which were then killed when the sheep were dipped. Walkers can no longer walk these areas because of gorse and lupus.
The only way forward is to keep farmers farming on hills. If one can keep a farmer on a hill, he will maintain and keep stock on it. Farm profitability is a major problem, however. As Senator Mooney noted, farm income is the most significant problem in the agriculture sector. Deputy Ferris referred to figures showing the average farm income was €15,000. That is the frightening reality for many farmers. Farm enterprises generate farm scale and so forth and we have maintained a substantial number of family farms. While our objective is to continue to do so, it is not proving easy to achieve.
To respond to Deputy Pringle, the issue of dormant shares is a problem. Mr. Gunning is much more familiar with what the Department wants to do with dormant shares. While the bulk of commonages are located in the west, stretching from County Donegal to west Cork, there are also commonages in other counties, including Wicklow, Louth and within half a mile of my home. All commonages have dormant shares and one only finds out who owns them when one tries to sort something out. An appeals process will be essential to any changes on commonages because one cannot have a bureaucratic system deciding the stocking rate on farms without consultation.
An upland environmental scheme fits in completely with Pillar 2. Pillar 1 will have higher greening requirements but they will not be anywhere near the levels of the requirements in the old REP scheme, which was a whole-farm scheme, or several of the agri-environment options scheme measures. It is easy to have an upland management scheme. Several countries, including Scotland, are considering them, while Austria has very good upland schemes in place. We are not reinventing the wheel but seeking to find a scheme that works for farmers.
I agree with Deputy Ferris on the cuts that have been implemented since 2008. Mr. Gunning reminded members that hill farmers were the biggest losers from the first cut in the disadvantaged areas scheme, which reduced the eligibility threshold for payments from 45 hectares to 34 hectares. As hill farmers had a higher average acreage, they incurred one third of the reduction in payments, even though they did not account for one third of the farmers affected.
A question was asked about the Minister. I am not the Minister and fail to understand how people get confused about this sometimes. The IFA is a lobbying organisation, while the Minister makes decisions. We lobbied the previous two Governments for eight years and the current Minister for the past two years. Sometimes I wonder if people listen to us and I am often concerned about that.
Mr. John Bryan:
I would be glad to take his pay.
Mr. Gunning will answer Deputy Ferris's question on dormant stakeholders. I agree with him that farmers manage the hills. Mr. McCarthy, who is from the Deputy's region, and Mr. Fadian, who is from County Mayo, know about the management of hills from experience.
As Mr. Gunning stated, undergraze burn-off is permitted for six weeks longer in Northern Ireland, which makes a significant difference. Two weeks ago, one could not burn land because it was too damp and cold.
Mr. Gerry Gunning:
On Deputy Ó Cuív's point about the justification for agri-environment schemes, the scheme will run in parallel with management plans for commonages. There are not other groups of farmers outside of commonages who have management plans. If that were the case, they too could be part of an agri-environment scheme. The scheme will be part of the next rural development programme, of which 25% of the funding has been allocated for agri-environment schemes. These schemes are compulsory for member states, although it is not compulsory for farmers to participate in them.
The focus today is on a strong agri-environment scheme in the commonage area, one which will run in parallel with the management plans which will hopefully arise out of the discussions. As Mr. Fadian and Mr. McCarthy stated, we need flexibility and there may be different solutions for different areas. The Chairman will be more familiar than most with the problems we have experienced with commonages in various areas.
On dormant shares, this is where the matter becomes tricky because if land is dormant, one cannot tell who owns it and one will use the dormant share because it is not being used. The dormant share should become part and parcel of the management plan and discussions should take place at local level to decide how to deal with dormant shares. The Department has not made a decision on how it will deal with this matter. When discussions convene the IFA will propose that this option be given serious consideration because doing something with the dormant shares could be the only way to get some of the areas in question back into good agricultural environmental condition. This view will form part of a discussion, although different solutions may be provided in different areas. Flexibility on this issue is required for this reason.
Deputy Ó Cuív asked a question on farm incomes and he is correct that I used 2011 figures. Given that farmers were leaving REPS 3 in 2012, the position was undoubtedly worse in 2012.
Mr. Gerry Gunning:
These payments account for about two thirds of direct payments. We did not want to come to this meeting without official figures and for this reason, we have with us the Teagasc national farm survey of 2011. We will revert to the joint committee on the position in 2012, which will reflect Deputy Ó Cuív's contention that direct payments reduced last year on the basis that farmers lost the REPS payment. While some of the farmers in question will have re-entered the agri-environment options scheme, this scheme is not the same as REPS. One must take account of all direct payments.
In answering a question on farm size Mr. Bryan noted that one third of those who lost out as a result of the cut introduced in the budget of October 2008 were located in mountain grazing areas. However, hill farmers make up only one fifth of the farmers in disadvantaged areas, which indicates that more farmers in mountain areas lost out than in other areas.
The figure is correct but it does not give average farm size. What it proves is that there is a bigger distribution of farm size in the mountain areas, in other words, farms are much smaller and the average size is smaller.
Mr. Gunning is missing my point. I accept what he says but there were more larger farmers as well as more smaller farms. The Department gave me the figures. The people with the lowest single farm payment also have the smallest farms. That is a fact and I can provide Mr. Gunning with a copy of the reply to my parliamentary question on the matter.
Mr. John Bryan:
I want to answer one or two questions of Deputy Ó Cuív. Just as we did not agree with the Minister on decreasing the disadvantaged area hectarage attracting a payment from 45 to 34, nobody consulted us on the figure of 137. In case the Deputy was misled by anybody, he should note that under no circumstances were we consulted. At all stages, we have been very clear that the disadvantaged areas payment is an important one. The level should have been retained at that of 2008 and the hectarage should not have been reduced to 34 hectares, or 30 this time. It is a severe hit for farmers in the worst areas.
The Deputy asked about the document. It has been on the EU website for nearly a fortnight. It was not the fourth secret of Fatima in the journal. Those concerned must have just found the document on the Internet. It is on the Internet for anybody who wants to see it.
Mr. John Bryan:
Different countries have different requests. The Austrians' request has been an official one for nearly nine months. They have already said they are using a coefficient of 25% for the hills. The Spanish are seeking a coefficient. The Scottish are opting for a regional model, varying from a payment of £11 per acre on the hills to £100 in the disadvantaged areas, with a maximum of £200. When the Deputy said he believed all hectares were equal across European Union, he should have noted that the European Commission, in the document it submitted to Ireland in July 2011, proposed eight regions attracting totally different payments. This is not the fourth secret of Fatima but what has been on the European Union website for a very long period.
The Commission document contained many points that surprised us. The Germans, however, sought no capping but different options. The French made requests and the British sought the option of transferring money within pillars and that of transferring greening measures, as referred to in the document, from pillar 1 to pillar 2. This is the last thing we would want. This fits in with what was spoken about a minute ago.
The document is quite long. The Austrians were the first to suggest a coefficient. That was about nine months ago.
Mr. John Bryan:
It is. There are measures sought by various countries, including the Spanish and Austrians. Consider the position of the Spanish because of the 20 million hectares deemed ineligible. It is in the Presidency proposal that no country can grow the number of hectares by more than 45%. This is so the Spanish can limit all these hectares. Various countries have sought different options.
I know but we were told last Thursday that the Presidency would be putting out the reply yesterday. Therefore, I am not interested in what all the other countries are proposing because that was already read-----
Mr. John Bryan:
The Presidency document that went up on the website, on Monday a week ago, I believe, contains the French , German and British proposals and the Minister's proposal for approximation, which I am sure he explained to the committee in great detail. These were all in the Presidency proposals put forward to the Council of Ministers yesterday. They met a mixed reaction. I was in Brussels yesterday and spoke to some delegates from other countries. There are different views.
Mr. Flor McCarthy:
The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and the National Parks and Wildlife Service. We asked several times for examples for commonages. The representatives were on two commonages actually and I was on one commonage with them myself. They did not give us examples. One cannot make a decision on anything until one has the figures. The first time we saw the figures was when they appeared in the journal. We knew the consequences automatically. On my commonage, the minimum stocking rate is 3.3 ewes per hectare. The top of Carrauntoohill is covered with snow for three or four months per year. The rate should be approximately 1.5 ewes per hectare. There are commonages in Kerry where one can drive a jeep to the top, yet the rate is one ewe per hectare. One does not need a high level of intelligence to realise the figures are wrong. We want control over the figures for our own land. We do not want the Department dictating to us. However, if we stand idly by, the Department will impose the figures on us. We have to react and that is what we did. We met the Minister and hope he will put the independent chairman in place to deal with the matter. We would love to have control. That is the ideal scenario. It would be as it always was. Unfortunately, it appears from what we are seeing that this will not prevail.
As every farmer knows, the single payment, disadvantaged areas payment and environmental payments comprise our income. We will protect these at all costs. As a farmer, it is all about protecting my income. I depend totally on farming and cannot just hang my two hands by my side and let the Department impose rules on me. I have to drive on and try to obtain some kind of workable solution. What we are proposing is a plan for seven years over which farmers will have control. Obviously, we would prefer to be working to our own plan with no outside interference but it appears we cannot draw down a single payment under this model. We would love to be able to do so. If the committee can influence the Minister and put pressure on him in the Dáil, we will welcome it.
Reference was made to the environmental programmes. We obviously realise the financial circumstances of the country. We want a proper environmental scheme because we realise disadvantaged areas schemes and environmental schemes comprise and have comprised an important part of hill farming. We fully support what the Deputy says in that regard.
Let us consider another reality we face in respect of the Minister and the withdrawal of plans. We met the Department representatives last Friday week and noted they are still talking about proceeding with these plans. It is a serious worry for us as farmers that this is still in the background. We must deal with that. We could bury our heads in the sand and just hope what I describe will not happen. I would love to believe that approach would be successful but I have a strong feeling it will not be at this stage.
Given what is happening in Brussels, there will be increases to the single payment for the lands in question. The payment will, therefore, become more important and consequently the plans will become more important. More money will hinge on them and that is the reality for every farmer.
I could not agree more with Deputy Ferris on the farm assist scheme cut. Farmers on the scheme were the only farmers on social welfare benefit that were attacked. We have lobbied all the Members extensively on this, obviously without success. As members are aware, none of the budget decisions was reversed. The Government has a big majority but we have a major problem with the cuts to the scheme.
Dormant shares are obviously a problem. IFA policy is always that everyone should get paid. We do not lobby for cuts; we lobby for everybody to get paid. The Department or European Union takes decisions, perhaps not to pay certain individuals. Our policy always has been and will be that everybody should be paid with his little red tape as possible. We do not want rules and regulations. I, as a farmer rather than a representative, want to be able to access my money as easily as possible. We do not live in our own world and are governed according to schemes designed in Europe. We are all willing to obey the rules once they are workable but we do not want rules imposed on us without consultation.
A Deputy asked about the appeals system. Of course, we need an appeals system. If what is imposed on us is totally unworkable, we have to react. If what was in the journal is imposed, we will say "No" because we have to. The proposal is totally unworkable, but we are willing to work within a framework to get money.
Senator Healy Eames referred to stocking rates in Connemara, which have been significantly affected. I have been in the region myself and have met the farmers. I noted their concerns. The only real concern is that they will be able to access their single payment, their money. This applies to us all, no matter whether we farm in Kerry or Donegal.
Does that mean that the Commission proposal to flatten payments would be, owing to all of the conditions imposed on farmers in terms of good farming practice and so on, more beneficial to the vast majority of farmers in Achill than would any other agri-environmental scheme?
I have one short question in regard to active and inactive farmers, about which there appears to be some confusion. Dormant shareholders are not claiming anything under the single payment scheme. In regard to all other farmers claiming the single payment who have commonage but do not have sheep on it, is Mr. Bryan saying that the Commission would query whether they should be paid?
Mr. John Bryan:
There are ten different types of people involved. Of concern are the farmers farming elsewhere who have stock and meet the minimum stocking rates. If agreement is reached during the Irish Presidency, the next round of the CAP will commence in 2014, the major changes of which may not be implemented until 2015. It appears that as part of Good Agricultural and Environmental Conditions a minium stocking rate will be introduced not only in the hills but everywhere. Most countries appear to be asking for this. This means a claim from a farmer who has no stock and is not engaged in farming will be determined invalid by the Commission. The Commission decides terms, which often run to 30 pages. An applicant must be actively farming. A farmer who is not engaged in farming, has no stock and takes no active part in farm maintenance gets nothing. Some countries have drawn up plans for people not involved in farming but taking part in a maintenance scheme, which is slightly different and includes topping a couple of times. However, some land is incapable of being topped.
Mr. John Bryan:
Then they are farming. The Commission does not state that a farmer must farm every square inch of land, whether that land is in Achill or Kilkenny. When my land maps were returned to me various pieces of land had been removed because the Commission deemed that land was not being farmed. Land which is being farmed and kept in good agricultural condition is deemed eligible. Whether a commonage or not, if the Commission deems land is not being farmed it is taken out. That has happened a great deal this year.
Mr. Gerry Gunning:
These are the type of situations that need to be looked at. We are moving to a new scenario vis-à-vis the single payment, agri-environment and disadvantaged areas being called areas of natural constraint. There is much discussion to be had around the details of all aspects of this. We will probably be back before the committee again. One of the key considerations is funding. Deputy Ó Cuív appeared to be throwing cold water on the rural development side. It is up to the Government to put in place a strong rural development programme. We are arguing for a seven year programme because we will get only one go at addressing this issue. It is important we complement the Pillar 1 payments, which are hugely important everywhere. We also need a strong Pillar 2 to deal with specific targeted issues. One of those issues, with which we have dealt today, is commonages. We would see Pillar 1 as complementing Pillar 2 in this regard. In many ways, the Pillar 2 environmental schemes will be hugely important in the common areas because farmers previously in the agri-environment and REP schemes are the ones who have lost most in terms of cutbacks.
The indication was given in response to a question posed by Deputy Kyne that if commonage was not actively used no payment would be made. As pointed out in the example I gave, this does not assist the Department. If one forces all farmers who declare commonage in their area aid to put sheep on that commonage those already doing so will be required, because of the cap, to reduce the number of cattle or sheep they have on their commonage. This is of major concern. Perhaps the delegates would confirm that the IFA proposes to oppose any such approach.
We know the figures in relation to the issue raised by Mr. Bryan. To obtain a disadvantaged area scheme payment a person is required to have 0.15 livestock units per hectare in a mountain area. If I recall it correctly, it must be a severely disadvantaged area, which is a ludicrous stocking requirement in respect of that area but reasonable in respect of the hills. We know for certain that while 10,000 applied only 2,000 were refused. In other words, 80% of the derogations were granted. I have asked for a breakdown between severely disadvantaged, less favoured and mountain areas. The figures I received at Christmas indicate that more farmers on severely disadvantaged and less favoured areas than on the mountain areas were refused a derogation, which means we can surmise that fewer than 1,000 farmers on the mountain do not meet minimum stocking requirements. I have said time and again that we should have a minimum stocking level and that there should be four levels to that minimum stocking level, one each for the mountains, severely disadvantaged and less favoured areas and another for good land. That should be a requirement for single payment. This does not pose a problem for farmers in mountain areas because there is very little under-stocking of land in the mountain areas. The problem is more severe in other parts of the country. We know that for farmers with 0.15 of livestock on severely disadvantaged land it is an even bigger problem. The suggestion that there are many farmers in mountain areas declaring a great deal of land but who have no stock does not stand up to examination. A farmer who did not use the hill had to make up to 0.15 on his low land. As such, that farmer would have to have had 0.03 or 0.05 or more on the low land to make up for the hill.
Mr. John Bryan:
We would appreciate if the committee would support strong Pillar 2 funding and, as suggested by Senator Healy Eames, co-funding by Government. We believe it is important that this committee brings maximum pressure to bear in this regard given the value of the sector to the Government and the potential for job creation-----
There is €313 million. If the ratio of co-funding is 53:47 we should seek to maximise it, regardless of where we put it.
We had a good engagement last week with officials from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and National Parks and Wildlife Service, which if I recall correctly Mr. Gunning and others attended. I believe the discussion forum should involve the farming organisations, Comhairle na Tuaithe and others.
As suggested by Deputy Kyne we should not fiddle with the issues that do not require to be fiddled with. Under-stocking has been identified as a big problem. They over-egged it in the last plan. Other issues such as burning and deer and vegetation management need to be addressed. Common sense must prevail and people should not be suggesting it is not possible to burn after 1 March and so on. We have to fix the problem and need practical solutions if we are to do so.
We coined a phrase during our proceedings last week - "common sense for commonages". That is all we want.
We are happy to facilitate engagement. It will boil down to good agricultural and environment conditions. The farmer is the key, which was acknowledged by Dr. Andrew Bleasdale and Mr. Paud Evans and others, but he or she will only play a part if it makes economic sense. Farmers will not do it for recreational purposes. The mission statement of the Wicklow Uplands Council states it is to accommodate all those who live, work and recreate in the uplands. Everybody must believe he or she gets something from it. If the farmer is a key player in providing good agricultural and environment conditions, GAECs for the commonage areas, he or she must know it makes economic sense. One can do this under many schemes, for example, return on the stock, enhanced payment for diverse breeds or agri-environment schemes, but it must make economic sense.
I thank the IFA representatives for attending and engaging with the committee. The committee has given a commitment to work on these issues. We will get only one bite but there is cross-party determination to get this issue right. We need to ensure we make the most of the opportunity presented by the Pillar 2 negotiations.