Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Tuesday, 16 December 2014
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine
Hen Harrier Special Protection Areas
We shall resume in public session. I remind witnesses to turn off their mobile phones and at the outset I notify the members that Deputy Michael Fitzmaurice is substituting for Deputy Thomas Pringle. I welcome the Deputy to our meeting.
As the Deputy is a TD that is not possible, but he can make a contribution nevertheless.
I welcome Mr. Jason Fitzgerald, Mr. Liam O'Keeffe and Mr. Sean Kelly from the Irish Farmers with Designated Land group. This is a group which represents farmers affected by the designation of lands for the hen harrier. I thank the witnesses for coming before the committee today. I apologise for the delay. It was caused by the inability to commence the meeting at 2 p.m. I have to deal with the matter of privilege again. I bring to the witnesses attention that they are protected by absolute privilege in respect of the evidence they are to give to the committee. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence in relation to a particular matter and they continue to do so, they are entitled thereafter only to a 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 they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that where possible they should not criticise or make charges against any person or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.
I understand Mr. Fitzgerald will make the presentation and invite him to make his opening statement.
Mr. Jason Fitzgerald:
Irish Farmers with Designated Lands, IFDL, is a group representing farmers in regions within Ireland affected by the designation of lands for the hen harrier special protection area, SPA. The total land area affected by this designation is 169,000 hectares which affects more than 4,400 farmers. The aim of IFDL is to restore the value of designated land to the same value as neighbouring non-designated land and that of similar type land elsewhere and an equal payment on every designated hectare to be paid to farmers. We have attended several meetings throughout the regions affected by the designation. At these meetings, farmers have expressed their real concerns at the realisation that their land value has been completely decimated. We have very solid examples of financial stress that this designation has put on farmers within these regions. Prospective buyers have indicated that it was too risky to purchase lands designated for hen harrier SPA. Some farmers, wanting to sell their lands, could not get a bid. The main reasons for the devaluation include the suspension of the national parks and wildlife hen harrier farm plan scheme, which means that farmers who own land affected by the designation were not compensated. This will result in farmers abandoning some of these lands and moving from these communities.
At meetings we have attended in the past two months at which this issue was discussed and considered, it was very clear that communities are devastated by the realisation that the value of their land has disappeared. A resolution which is satisfactory to the farmers who own land in these regions must be found.
There is now a general blanket ban on the planting of trees for forestation purposes in hen harrier SPA regions. There is also a restriction on forestry planting on lands adjoining these regions. The 2010 hen harrier survey indicates that the hen harrier population decreased by 18% in SPA designated areas. This led to the ban on afforestation being introduced, despite the fact that the national population appears to be stable.
Farmers are being fined in respect of their single farm payments as a result of the fact that their SPA designated land does not qualify under the good agricultural and environmental condition, GAEC, criteria. In 2007, farmers with land in these regions were offered compensation through the National Parks and Wildlife Service. This amounted to compensation of €350 per hectare for the first 40 hectares, €25 per hectare for land between 41 to 120 hectares and €5 per hectare thereafter. At that time, farmers in the main accepted this compensation on the understanding that new afforestation would generally be permitted on these lands. However, this has not proven to be the case and the compensation to which I refer would not be adequate to compensate farmers who own land with the SPA hen harrier designation.
In the context of resolutions, a proper level of compensation must be put in place and this must be guaranteed to remain in effect during the designation period. The amount of compensation should be reviewed every five years. The payment must be made on every designated hectare in view of the fact that every hectare is devalued and affected by the designation. All farmers with designated land must be exempt from GAEC criteria when claiming their single farm payments. Afforestation must be reintroduced and restrictions on non-designated land adjoining SPA hen harrier regions should be removed. Non-intensive viable farming needs to be central to the formation of a new hen harrier scheme, which needs to be flexible, workable and reasonable.
Until such time as the Commission decides on a mechanism to remove land from designation, farmers must be compensated adequately. A long-term, viable scheme must be put in place to ensure that farming in these regions is as viable as forestry. Our aim is to protect the value of the lands which are designated for the protection of the hen harrier.
I welcome our guests. I read their submission with interest. We need to move forward and find solutions. We must consider those solutions in the context of both European and national law. IFDL makes a case for compensation. The latter can mean different things to different people. If a payment were to be put in place in the long term to maintain our guests' system of farming in such a way as to maximise the chances of the hen harrier not only surviving but also propagating, would this be acceptable as a way forward? I do not mind how many hectares of land a farmer owns but if one of those hectares is useful to the hen harrier, then all other hectares are also useful. I do not understand the logic of paying a certain amount in respect of the first 40 hectares. If the land is designated, then all of it is designated and if the relevant action must be taken in respect of every hectare, then farmers should get the requisite payment. I would make the case that farmers who are affected should receive payment in respect of every hectare of designated land they own. Rather than putting in place a scheme such as those relating to compensation for not obtaining planning permission for windmills or for not receiving grants, I am of the view that a payment would be made in respect of farmers who follow a prescription plan to maximise the hen harrier population. I am also of the view that this would take into account the losses or costs farmers will incur as a result of not having the freedom to farm in the way they want.
On the GAEC criteria, is Mr. Fitzgerald saying - this would be a sensible proposition - that if it is good for the hen harrier, then, by definition, it should be eligible for the single farm payment. In other words, if it is necessary to provide certain kinds of cover, scrub land or ecological focus areas - whatever the powers that be may wish to call them - then the land involved should not be excluded from the calculations relating to the single farm payment scheme. Is Mr. Fitzgerald stating that it cannot be the case that the National Parks and Wildlife Services, NPWS, may state that it wants the land to be maintained in a particular way and then those responsible for administering the single farm payment scheme saying the land in question does not qualify because it does not meet the criteria relating to forage areas?
On the reintroduction of afforestation, I understand that some work is being done at present to assess whether forestry is good or bad for hen harriers. Is Mr. Fitzgerald saying that afforestation should be allowed even if it is detrimental to hen harriers or is he stating that where it is proven to be neutral or favourable to them, then it should be allowed? Perhaps he will clarify the position in this regard.
I am fascinated by the restrictions which apply in respect of undesignated land. When land is designated, anything one proposes to do on adjacent lands will have an impact on the former. For example, if one were going to do work on an adjacent plot of land which might result in a designated bog being drained, this can be taken into account when a decision in respect of planning permission is being made. Is Mr. Fitzgerald stating that there should be no restrictions on what can be done on adjacent lands even if this might affect the designated land? Is he stating that if there are restrictions, then farmers should be paid compensation? Clarity is required in respect of that matter. As already stated, I am of the view that it is time to move on and find a resolution.
The key sentence in Mr. Fitzgerald's presentation is that which reads, "Non-intensive viable farming needs to be central to the formation of a new hen harrier scheme, which needs to be flexible, workable and reasonable." I have travelled widely and attended many farmers' meetings throughout the country. As our guests are aware, I criticised the Government roundly for its handling of the single farm payment issue and its refusal to level the playing pitch in respect of high nature value farming. Europe will not pay single farm payments to people if we do not protect high nature value farming. One of the best ways in which we could have helped farmers such as those represented at this meeting would have been to increase the single farm payment to a fair level. In fairness to the Minister for Agriculture and Rural Development, Ms Michelle O'Neill, MLA, this has been done in Northern Ireland and farming there has not fallen apart. What is Mr. Fitzgerald's view in respect of the lead-in review of the CAP in the context of ensuring that the single farm payment will take into account that our guests would farm more intensively if they were permitted to do so? Of course, the Government and the EU are telling them that they cannot farm more intensively.
Does Mr. Fitzgerald believe the payment in respect of areas of natural constraint - our guests probably know this as the disadvantaged areas payment - should actually relate to natural constraint?
If the land can produce only half of what it could because most of it is moorland and because of its designation, should the payment for the areas of natural constraint be higher to take into account the natural constraint?
There must be a payment. I am a bit shy of the word "compensation" because I have a funny feeling if it is included we will get a bang on the head and be told to go home, that we cannot pay compensation. In a legal sense, special area of conservation designation does not provide for compensation for the refusal to get a grant or planning permission, if this is what we are discussing. However, a substantial payment for carrying out actions which are good for the hen harrier would be perfectly doable and it is only a matter of political will and the need to put up the money. We need to be clear about what we are seeking because we are more likely to be successful with one approach rather than the other.
As farmers, the witnesses probably have more knowledge of the hen harrier than most. In their view, allowing that hen harrier numbers are small, how long do they think it would take and how long a programme would we require to ensure not only the survival of the hen harrier but its re-propagation to an adequate level? This is the key question. My experience is that four or five year programmes are far too short for nature. Nature does not work in five year cycles. Do the witnesses have any knowledge on how long they think it will take? How long does the scheme need to be to ensure it has the impact on the hen harrier which everybody desires? I am sure the witnesses are not against the hen harrier as long as the hen harrier does not take away their living. How long a cycle would be required before we see a significant improvement in the hen harrier situation? Do the witnesses wish the grant to be available throughout this cycle? Would it be ten or 15 years? Bringing back the corncrake is a long-term project and it will not happen overnight.
I thank Mr. Fitzgerald for his presentation and I welcome the witnesses. This is one of the biggest injustices against a section of the rural community I have come across in my time in politics. In his presentation Mr. Fitzgerald stated 169,000 ha are owned by 4,400 farmers. To my knowledge a very small percentage of them received payments for a period of time after entering into contracts. What percentage of the 4,400 received a package?
The documentation I received from the witnesses includes a document on compensation for land owners prepared by John Dore, who is an agricultural economist and valuer. He suggests farmers would be willing to accept €698 per hectare from the National Parks and Wildlife Service for a period of 15 years as compensation for the devaluation of land as a consequence of what has happened. Has this been negotiated with the Department or with the Minister? I understand the witnesses were recently in Europe. Did they have this conversation there and what feedback have they received?
It is obvious that something must be done to sort out this if we are to have justice for people whose land effectively has been sterilised and made valueless as a consequence of what was done, who have no avenue from which to make anything from the land, and who are not being compensated for being a facilitator for the hen harrier.
Mr. Fitzgerald also mentioned that the hen harrier population in the special protection areas has declined, compared to adjoining lands or other lands used for a different purpose. Was this report done by the witnesses or is it based on scientific analysis?
The population has declined rather than increased as a consequence of the work that has been done. Deputy Ó Cuív asked how long it would take to recover. Will the witnesses elaborate what they mean by a new scheme and how it would work? Would be consistent with what John Dore states in his report? If not, will the witnesses elaborate on it?
I have no doubt there is a genuine effort to find a resolution to this, particularly coming from those most affected by it, who are those represented by the witnesses. They have had meetings with Ministers in the past, which I believe were not very fruitful. Nothing was done to give any compensation.
I was present with Sean Kelly, MEP, in his area and it was striking that a particular area which has been designated has forestry on either side. An entire valley has been sterilised as a consequence. It has destroyed the area. The hen harrier area is on one side of a ditch in a particular townland but the area on the other side of the ditch is not a special protection area. It makes no sense whatsoever.
Has any suggestion of GLAS proposals been made with regard to finding a solution? This needs to be teased out. I do not believe it would in any way address the situation. I would like to hear the views of the witnesses on this. I thank Mr. Fitzgerald for his presentation.
The reductions in single farm payments is a key issue where I live in east Clare, much of which has been designated as part of the Slieve Aughty hen harrier special protection area. Article 34(2) of Regulation No. 73/2009 defines eligible hectares for the purposes of the single farm payment as follows:
Paragraph (b) is the most important part with regard to this discussion, as it was pursuant to the birds directive that the special protection areas were created. In the experience of the witnesses, when departmental officials state areas are not eligible for the single farm payment because they do not qualify as an agricultural area or holding, are they aware of the second limb of the test in paragraph (b) and that the reason they do not comply is because of the implementation of the birds directive? Is paragraph (a) the only test which is applied, with regard to whether they are agriculturally productive areas?
For the purposes of this Title, ‘eligible hectare’ shall mean:
(a) any agricultural area of the holding, and any area planted with short rotation coppice (CN code ex 0602 90 41) that is used for an agricultural activity or, where the area is used as well for non-agricultural activities, predominantly used for agricultural activities; and
(b) any area which gave a right to payments under the single payment scheme or the single area payment scheme in 2008 and which:(i) no longer complies with the definition of ‘eligible’ as a result of the implementation of Council Directive 79/409/EEC of 2 April 1979 on the conservation of wild birds.
What contours of a scheme would the witnesses like to see? Is a five-year scheme realistic or is a longer scheme needed, based on what they know about hen harrier rejuvenation and with regard to farm families being able to plan their futures and make economic decisions?
Mr. Jason Fitzgerald:
If one has to answer that question, one has to consider the consequences of the designation and the serious concern around it. The main concern is that farmers are not able to make an income from their lands. The other issue is that farmers cannot sell their land; it is completely worthless. Those issues have to be addressed. A viable long-term scheme has to be introduced. Certainty on the value of land and the future of farming in these areas must be reintroduced. If farmers cannot survive in these areas, hen harriers will not either.
In terms of a long-term scheme, realistically one would want a commitment that as long as a designation will remain in place, funding will be put in place to incentivise farmers to provide a habitat and protect the hen harrier to a level that will cover the costs of farming and the losses as a result of the designation.
The issue of adjoining designated lands has arisen when farmers have been turned down for forestry planting because their land adjoins a designated area. The payments for disadvantaged areas should be larger, but we would prefer if the scheme to deal with the hen harrier issue was properly funded and covered all farmers in the area. The funding has decreased in recent years. The payment sought to make good land equal to bad land, but the payments have been too small for many farmers.
Farmers are probably the best people to protect the hen harrier in these areas because they have lived with them for years and understand their needs. I do not think farmers get credit for the knowledge they have of the bird. Many people want to tell them what to do, order them around and impose designations and restrictions on their land which is causing havoc. The hen harrier population prior to the designation was better. The designated areas were selected for a reason.
I understand about 9% of the people who applied were approved for the scheme. It was impossible for many people to be approved for the scheme. Many people were involved in REPS. Others were renting land and there was a requirement that land was rented for five years previous to the designation. Land had to be purchased three years prior to the designation. People on commonage were not allowed to take part in the scheme. The scheme was designed to be very difficult to get into, but it should have encouraged as many people as possible to participate.
The end goal is to protect the hen harrier. It is very important that farmers are encouraged to do that and are not out of pocket as a result. Most farmers love to farm their land and to protect the nature around them. They have been squeezed into a situation whereby they have to ask to plant or sell their land or realise its value. It is devastating communities. Some farmers in these areas are farming the most challenging arable land in the country. If their only alternative is to plant their land, they will want to do that. A long-term scheme has to be put in place to make farming as attractive and viable as forestry so they are not out of pocket.
The GLAS scheme was mentioned. The biggest problem with the scheme is that it is a five year scheme. A farmer who has no designation could be farming some of the best land in the country, and could be entitled to a maximum GLAS payment of €5,000. With a free and clear deed, he or she can sell his or her land when he or she wishes; he or she simply has to comply with the restrictions of the GLAS.
Our situation is completely different. In 2007 farmers were offered a scheme and were to be incentivised to protect the hen harrier. Land was redesignated on the back of that agreement in EU law. It was wrong to pull money from the scheme. It was not like REPS or similar schemes because they do not affect land values. Farmers were dependent on this scheme to underpin the value of their land and their future on the land.
Many farmers are suffering from severe mental stress and depression as a result of this designation. Farmers do not know where to go and have been offered no support. This has gone on for four years and they are at their wits' end. They are abandoning the land and, in many cases, have given up hope. There is nobody to whom these people can turn.
I welcome the witnesses and thank them for the presentation. One might say that farmers did not know where to go for four years. I have seen parts of Ireland in which farmers did not know where to go for the past 17 years because of designations. We know that down through the years farmers and nature lived hand-in-hand. Fundamental environmentalism and ridiculous legislation now mean that a farmer or bird can live in an area, but both will not survive. It is a sad statement to have to make about bad legislation and people, who did not know what they were talking about, making decisions.
Compensation was mentioned. If people want to sell their land, it is valueless. The witnesses and other groups have heard from auctioneers how land is being devalued in different parts of Ireland because of designations.
In Sligo a farmer on designated land, like that to which the witnesses referred, who was required to fence land where stakes were rotten had to get an appropriate environmental assessment and planning permission. A farmer in another field in Ireland can fence his or her land any day of the year. What is compensation? I have dealt with this issue for many years. Promises from organisations such as the National Parks and Wildlife Service will be made, but they will not deliver, as has been proven down through the years.
The sad reality is that in different parts of Ireland people's survival is now under threat. Unless politicians and the legislators in Europe wake up to this, we will face a revolt. I have heard farmers who live near me, as well farmers from elsewhere around the country, say it is a sad day when people decide to get rid of a bird because either they or the bird can stay, but not both. That did not happen when I was younger. We need to rectify the situation very quickly.
The witnesses are 100% correct. I have seen it right around the country. People not in designated areas do not realise the type of impositions that are being put on people. If one agrees with it, that is fine. Deputy Ó Cuív will say the agreement with farming organisations in 1997 was not worth the paper on which it was written. It was agreed that while a designation was in place, people would be compensated for it. I have read the agreement and can show it to the committee.
However, it has never been adhered to.
I urge the delegation to keep at it. In parts of Ireland, there is trouble over the single farm payment. I was in a field one day and one person from a Department was telling me to pull a furze bush and another person was telling me not to. The farmer was in the middle and did not know where to go. This demonstrates the bureaucracy that has featured. Politicians need to sort out something for the delegates and others who have designated land throughout the country. What is happening must not continue.
I welcome the delegates. I live in the middle of a hen harrier designated area. All of west Limerick is designated. I have heard about this in chapter and verse for many years. It is not today or yesterday that this issue has become a problem but it is now coming to a head. To be fair, most landowners do not really have a difficulty with the designation and understand the reasons for it and the requirement for habitat protection. The latter is a given. What they have difficulty with, however, is land valuation and farm practices. I refer to what farmers can and cannot do with their own land and how their land is adversely affected by virtue of the designation.
The delegates might respond to the threat response plan of the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht through the National Parks and Wildlife Service. It is very focused on the bird. In my part of the world, we are talking about 20 birds. This is a very small number considering that parts of west Limerick, north Cork and east Kerry have been converted to virtual wilderness. The number of birds is depleting year on year and nobody can say definitively whether intensive agriculture, farm practices, wind energy development or scrub affects their population. Is the bird just dying out because such things happen? No one seems to know.
Could I get the delegation's opinion on how this could be brought to a head? The designation will not be lifted - we know that - and this is very clear from the birds directive. In fact, some elements of the threat response plan suggest that even more land might be designated, which would cause its own problem. Could the delegates give some practical suggestions as to what could be done in the short term to make life easier for the landowners under the threat response plan, bearing in mind habitat protection?
Reference was made to GLAS. The delegates might give an example of what a farmer whose land has been designated must go through by comparison with a farmer whose land has not been designated. What payments would be made to them if the only scheme were the GLAS? Those who do not really have the grasp of this matter that the delegates have might argue that if the farmers get a GLAS payment, they will be fine. Could we have a practical example of what designation has meant to the delegates as landowners, even in terms of what auctioneers are saying about what the land is worth?
This issue has featured for a long time and successive Governments have not dealt with it. It needs to be dealt with now out of fairness. The committee's deliberations will be a matter for itself. In the context of the new rural development programme being drafted, all I ask for is that, if the committee is satisfied based on representations made to it by those present, we question whether it is fair that one landowner is subject to very onerous requirements regarding the protection of a habitat while a neighbouring landowner is subject to no such requirements. If the system is not fair, something should be done about it. Having travelled around west and east Limerick on a road trip of public meetings about this issue, I realise people are just seeking acknowledgement of the fact that designation imposes responsibility on a landowner that would not be imposed on him otherwise.
I thank the Chairman for his time and patience.
I will be brief because pretty much everything I wanted to say has been said already. The delegates mentioned that they were in Brussels. What response did they receive there? Deputy O'Donovan mentioned the designation of land and that it is very unlikely that it will be lifted. I would like to see it being lifted but that could be a dream that will not be realised. The concern is over the solution. Even in south Galway and north Clare, which are heavily designated, a number of individuals - I am not saying they are representative of everybody else - would love the opportunity to plant their land and get an income from it in that way. What was the response in Brussels?
Responsibility for the problem falls between two departments, which have very different outlooks. The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine is more concerned with the farmer and the National Parks and Wildlife Service is more concerned with the restrictions. Both cannot keep handing responsibility to each other to solve it. Ultimately, the delegates are squeezed in the middle and unfortunately cannot farm the land they want to farm. It is not a question of farmers who want something for nothing. The farmers want to have the opportunity to farm the land in the way they know how or to be compensated properly. I would like a body to have sole responsibility for this because we cannot continue to have circumstances year on year in which one Department says it is the problem of another. If we do not resolve this, we will be at this again in 20 years' time. How did the delegates get on in Europe?
The delegates are members of various farming organisations. What have they done to take up the cause on their behalf? Representative bodies should be fighting this. I am from the midlands and am familiar with callows and wetlands, which are the equivalent of the designated areas in question. I have been deeply involved with cases in this regard and fought the odd one fairly successfully.
On the sterilisation of land by the ESB without appropriate compensation, I refer to a basic principle decided by the Supreme Court. Designation seems to be the equivalent in that one does not get compensation. As far as I can gather from the presentation, fewer than 1% of the affected farmers have gained compensation. That statistic is horrendous and frightening. The matter arises owing to environmental restrictions linked to the protection of the hen harrier bird of prey. The population of the bird seems to be declining according to the recent study of 2010, as referred to by the delegates. It would be interesting to learn what a study from 2014 or 2015 would state. The delegates are basically being left in limbo. In terms of securing fairness, justice and equity, this is an absolute disgrace. To have been left in limbo for some years is pretty appalling for anybody.
The delegates' case is well made. They seek the payment of fair and proper compensation for landowners due to losses likely to arise as a result of their lands being included for designation as a special protection area.
Documentary evidence has been provided on the negative impact of designation on the sale value of land. One cannot even plant forests in the designated area. The significant evaluation amounts to sterilisation.
Have the delegates sought legal advice on the impact? I would be interested in seeing where that will go. If the potential of the land to be utilised is severely affected, this surely must be taken into account. One cannot carry on reseeding or with normal improvements because of the sensitivities at play.
I am not very familiar with the threat response plan to which Deputy O'Donovan referred. He indicated there could be further restrictions. That is a frightening scenario. Somebody in the midlands is not affected but could be. It is important that we fight for everybody across the country, irrespective of their location. That is why I am here.
What support has IFDL got from the wider farming community? Just because only 4,000 farmers are affected does not mean this cannot reach out in various ways to the 100,000 or so farmers out there. Before Deputy Fitzmaurice came in here I was always a strong advocate for rural people because many of these measures are imposed by people who have no knowledge of the impact or consequences they have on people in rural Ireland who are trying to eke out a living in difficult circumstances, often not of their own making. Many are isolated too. I support any measure but it has to be done within the context of this special protected area, SPA, with respect to European as well as national law.
There is a negative impact on the witnesses’ legal rights. That may have its own consequences for the implementation of any plan.
Mr. Jason Fitzgerald:
I refer back to the response plan. This is a consultative committee being formed to discuss the threat to the hen harrier from forestry, intensive agriculture and wind energy. We will participate in that committee’s work but the farmer is being left out again. The farmer has to be looked after if the bird is to be looked after. We hope to participate in the response consultative committee and inform people of the needs of farmers in these areas.
We need a long-term scheme to match the value of forestry because the majority of farmers want to farm their land. They want to plant it because it is the easiest way out. They have been told they are entitled to nothing and that is why they want forestry. We understand that a limited amount of forestry, if any, will be accepted on the response plan. For the people who really need to plant their land that is their best chance and the people who just want to farm their land but find that is the only way out, should be compensated properly for a new scheme. The scheme has to match forestry in every way to take the heat away from the demand to plant the land. That is why it has to be long term. It has to equal the demand for forestry in monetary terms.
In respect of the Green Low-Carbon Agri-Environment Scheme, GLAS, if one farm in an area is designated and another is not, that farmer can still draw the €5,000 under GLAS, like the person on the hen harrier scheme. If a farmer has 100 or 200 acres under GLAS it all has to be farmed to the same level even though the farmer is being compensated for only the first 13.5ha. The restrictions in that scheme would reduce productivity on the farm by between 75% and 80%. The farmer is allowed only 40 units of nitrogen, artificial and natural, organic. That ground can be used for only rough grazing for cattle. There will be no nice lush green grass to feed them. They will be fed on stemmy, coarse grass. The cattle are used to provide the habitat for the hen harriers as opposed to the land being used to produce livestock. The farmer’s stocking rate will be significantly reduced to 0.6 of a livestock unit per hectare and in some cases 0.01 livestock unit per hectare.
When we went to Europe one regulation stood out, EC73/2009, Article 34(2)(b)(i), which states that if a farmer’s land qualified for single farm payment in 2008 and has lost eligibility since then, as a result of scrub and does not qualify for the Good Agricultural and Environmental Condition, GAEC, it should qualify for payments under the single farm payment scheme. That makes sense to us, that farmers cannot be penalised by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine because there is scrub growing on the land while the National Parks and Wildlife Service will not allow them to remove the scrub. It is a ridiculous situation.
We have considered legal advice but 4,000 farmers are affected. They would need a substantial sum of money to take a case on this. Surely a government could see sense in protecting these farmers and rural areas rather than forcing farmers down the legal road to get value from their land and to continue their existence in these areas. Surely people on the sides of hill and on some of the most challenging agricultural land in the country cannot be forced down these roads because these farmers have not been represented over the past four years, despite what people say. We were told bluntly there was no more money under GLAS and that we were to be left in this situation for another four to six years until the next round. We had no choice but to bring this to people’s attention to get some justice for these farmers, otherwise there is a strong possibility they will not be there in six years’ time.
Mr. Liam O'Keeffe:
We held meetings around the country. There are farmers who are down €70,000 from the time the scheme was introduced because they did not get into it. Many of them are very angry about this. They have tried writing to the Bar Council and to everyone they could think of but got no response. Many of these farmers, big, small and medium, had designated 20% or 25% of their land which could be used as an insurance policy to sell or plant if they needed money to put someone through college or if a member of the family became ill or needed to go into a nursing home. Now that is gone and that has upset many people. In the documentation we received it was made clear that the Government is committed to payment of a fair and proper level of compensation to landowners and land users who are at a financial loss as a result of the designation of this SPA. Land within the SPA or proposed SPA constitutes a Natura 2000 site. People did not object to the designation because they presumed that what they were being told would be honoured. It was not and that is why we are here.
I am probably the only person at the table who opposed actively entry into the European Union, which I always thought would come to a sticky end. However, we are where we are. Going back to 1997, we should read the small print. What was there in 1997, which Síle de Valera and I inherited when we came into the Department, was that a person would be compensated for any loss of income arising from a change from current practice. That always excluded and always will the inability to get a grant or a planning permission which was clear from the legislation passed in the very beginning, which the IFA knew. In other words, if a person was cutting turf at that time in a bog and was stopped, he or she had to be compensated. It was black and white because that was a current activity. On the other hand, if there was a loss of potential value into the future due to windmills or whatever needed planning permission, it was not compensable. I say this because it is not just a problem here, but is one in Europe. Much as I hate a lot of European law which is destroying the environment instead of helping it, I learned one hard lesson in all of this which is that one must study the book or one will get no answer. Prescription farming has done more damage than good to the wildlife it purports to protect.
If tomorrow those with responsibility for the OPW and natural heritage were totally on one's side and wanted to bring in a scheme and give one money, but had to do it legally, it would pose significant problems. I found that when I tried to do it. I remember when we destocked the hills the first time and wanted to pay farmers for the sheep we were taking down out of Exchequer funds, Síle de Valera and I went over to Europe. I will not bore the committee with the details, but the conversation was very interesting and basically boiled down to us being told we could not pay the farmers. I asked why not, given that it was our money, and I was told that we could not pay farmers as they were polluting the hills. In other words, overstocking was equivalent to polluting. Under the polluter-pays principle, one cannot compensate people for farming according to good practice. What I came around to when I was in government, if Deputy O'Donovan wishes to listen, was to say let us pretend that the hills are 20% overstocked on average and that therefore we will only compensate farmers for 80 of every 100 sheep we take away. I managed to persuade a good official in Teagasc, God rest his soul, to give me a good price for the sheep and 80% of the price he gave me was £3 more per euro - and it was punts at the time - than the IFA had sought in compensation. In that little slight of hand, I worked around the stupid and bizarre rules of the time. I could not go straight at it even though I was the Minister because of what they were telling me. We did not have permission to do it and it took six years to get permission for the scheme. We just went off and paid for six years without approval and eventually the permission came through on that formulation. The reality is that talking about potential value will lead one to hit the wall. One will not get compensation.
I happened to be travelling one day with a certain MEP from the north west who is still a member of the European Parliament. I said that something had to happen in Europe given the way designation and environmental policy was decimating our country. I said the MEP would have to go over, bang the table and get some change. I received a very short answer and was told to forget it as most countries liked it the way it was as most of their designated areas were well away from habitation. They do not have it our way. I was told we would not get any sympathy over there for that, which closed off that door. If one wanted to do it at this stage, the only legal approach would be to bring in a scheme and take certain actions. I would be very interested to hear if anyone has told the witnesses otherwise. We could not call it compensation but would price up the actions. Europe would insist on each action being priced. As long as those actions were carried out, we would agree to pay so much per hectare which we reckoned to be the economic cost of income foregone and the cost of carrying out the actions, including labour and time. A scheme could be brought in on that basis by the National Parks and Wildlife Service. The second thing that would put Europe and the Government on the back foot would be to provide that if 15 or 20 years is required for hen harriers as the minimum timescale, a scheme should last for that period. It should be a National Parks and Wildlife Service scheme, should not have rules on commonages and should allow everybody in. If they are serious about the hen harrier, everybody should be in the gig and there is no point in not having it.
Unless the IFDL bends what it is looking for - and I know what that is - it will not get it in its current form. If it bends what it is looking for in accordance with the realities of the law and in a way that could be done by a sympathetic Minister, it might get damn near in cash terms what it wants. We should be honest and acknowledge that a rose by any other name is still a rose. Money is still money no matter how it is given. There is a need for everyone to move into a space as to what is legally possible. Some of the things I have been asked about do not seem legally possible.
Finally, my dream is that we take a leaf out of David Cameron's book and renegotiate certain terms of our membership of the European Union, in which case, this issue should be on the agenda.
I have a point I want to make on that. First, I thank the witnesses for attending. In the context of the steps they are trying to take, all members here have a concern that justice is seen to be done. That is what we are looking for. If we can assist in that, we are willing to do so. This is a public forum where the people affected have an opportunity to present their cases before the Houses of Parliament and to put matters on the public record. We must be careful that what we say here, we mean.
While I tend to agree with the last point that was made, it strikes me that in many ways this is a National Parks and Wildlife Service problem for which agriculture is being asked, possibly, to compensate. I note that Mr. Fitzgerald is quoted inThe Corkmanas saying that in 2007 the Irish Government was given €528 million which was ringfenced for natural amenities such as natural heritage areas, special areas of conservation and special protection areas, but only €93 million of the money was applied to these areas and not 1 cent went to the hen harrier scheme. If that was the case, my understanding is that it is a matter for the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht as opposed to the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine.
When we looked at commonages more than 18 months ago, one presentation made to us was from the BurrenLIFE project. The end product there was species-rich grassland in the same way that other farmers' product is milk or beef. In respect of the matter before us, the end product is a healthy hen harrier population. It seems then that a BurrenLIFE type scheme would compensate farmers on the basis of the number of years a scheme must remain in place and deal with a lot of the problems. I may be wrong. We should get officials from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht to come here on foot of the presentation made here today. We have been given a great deal of information of which I, certainly, was not aware on the historical situation, where we are now and where we should be going.
This is not over yet by any means. We have a role to play. As a farmer, it would appear to me that what has been does is an injustice. It is unfair. Much has been said about the Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, and Rural Development Programme. Under future CAP programmes public good is an important factor. As such, this issue also crosses over into the CAP. We will need to examine the rural development programme from the point of view of the agricultural aspect of this and to also look at other areas such as the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht that might have responsibility for this area.
It is important to point out that the washing of the hands in public is all very well and good but the reality is that these people are living with a problem that was created under the negotiations carried out by the Irish Government at the time when the directive was being drawn up by the European Commission. We can talk all we want about irrelevant issues such as whether we remain in Europe, but that does not really matter.
That type of debate is pointless and of no worth to today's discussion. The people concerned are now living with the decision of the then Government which signed them up to this and withdrew the compensation package.
I would like to outline the reason it is important this committee review this matter. In regard to the eligibility criteria for the single farm payment, the European Commission has clearly stated that eligibility for this payment should not be in any way adversely impacted by virtue of the transposition of part or all of any EU directive, including the habitats directive. The documentation provided demonstrates that farmers have been adversely impacted by virtue of the fact that they have had to take on different elements of farm practices and as such eligibility has been affected.
The suggestion that officials of both agencies be brought before the committee is an excellent one of which I am supportive.
I, too, support the call that the officials of the National Parks and Wildlife service be brought before the committee. I think we also need to hear from officials from the single farm payment section of the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine to clarify that they are aware of the second limb of the test.
We should specifically hear from the officials from the single farm payment unit to ensure they are aware of the second limb of the test, which is set out in the terms and conditions of the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine single farm payment rules. It is fairly dense text, which I am sure people do not read first thing every day.
Mr. Liam O'Keeffe:
Some of the previous schemes were also unreasonable. I know of farmers who had to cut 50 acres of rushes with strimmers, which in this day and age seems ridiculous. It is important any new scheme that comes in is workable and reasonable and does not ask ridiculous things of people.
What fascinated me about the Burren project, in which officials such as Dr. Andy Bleasdale of the National Parks and Wildlife Service were involved, was that it designed a scheme that ensured the end product met the objectives of the heritage ambition. As stated by Mr. Fitzgerald the best people to look after this are the people who have been curators of it for generations. The same baseline should apply in terms of our work on this scheme. We can end this discussion today by offering some hope. We must see this through. I would like to assure the delegates that this committee will work on this issue. There is a willingness among members to come up with a commonsense proposal that is practical and can work. At the end of the day the hen harrier still exists. It has been around for many generations and farming practices. Without wishing to be patronising, the people who understand it best are the people who always have stood side by side with it. The aspiration must be that man and the relevant species of the area can co-exist. There is no point one making the other extinct.
Is the committee agreed on what has been proposed?
It is important that we come up with a real world solution. This will require a change in the narrative of the proposal put before us. The narrative of the current proposal does not fit with a possible solution to the problem. Many people will not say that to the IFDL. The Chairman has set out the type of terms we will need to work with if we are to get on cash on the table for the IFDL. It is important we go forward on that basis.
Mr. Jason Fitzgerald:
Farmers are aware that the designation will be extremely difficult to remove and possibly will not be removed. Farmers would be generally very happy to work on a scheme that would provide a habitat for the hen harrier. We also see as the way forward that farmers be incentivised to provide a habitat for the hen harrier. It is important that farmers are central in the drawing up of any scheme in these areas. It is not good enough that the three traditional farming organisations be central in the drawing up of a new scheme. Farmers in the designated areas are aware of the problems and pitfalls of previous schemes and they should be central in drawing up a new hen harrier scheme.
When the original designations were made in 1998 - this might be a good precedent to use with the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht because the current Secretary General of that Department was also Secretary General at that time and was centrally involved in this - a liaison committee was set up for each SAC, which comprised only farmers and officials from the Department. I think that would be a much better model of negotiation. In this case and to get the overall scheme in place in the first instance, there would be one liaison committee for all of the hen harrier areas. The delegates should highlight that liaison committees were put in place in 1998, that these were set up by the Department and their remit was to negotiate directly with the farmers involved rather than the farming organisations.
There is need for recognition of the lack of achievement down through the years in terms of representation of people affected by the hen harriers. It is only in the past 12 months that there has been any impetus in terms of trying to move forward this issue. I agree with Mr. Fitzgerald that the farmers involved and not abstract farming organisations who have not served them well up to now should be centrally involved in any new scheme.
I thank the delegates for attending this meeting. The committee is committed to assisting them. This issue will form part of our discussion on our work plan. I believe establishment of a sub-committee of this and the other Department will be important.
I wish members, staff of the committee secretariat and broadcasting unit and the delegates a very happy Christmas and new year.