Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Tuesday, 30 January 2018
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine
Hen Harrier Programme: Discussion
I remind members and persons in the Public Gallery to ensure that their mobile phones, which interfere with the communications system, are turned off completely.
We are dealing today with the hen harrier programme. From Irish Farmers with Designated Land, IFDL, I welcome Mr. Jason Fitzgerald, Mr. Morris Flynn, Mr. Kenneth Fitzgerald and Mr. Sean Kelly. I thank them for attending in order to discuss the programme.
Before we begin, I bring to the witnesses' attention the fact that they are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on 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. 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 ask Mr. Fitzgerald to make his opening statement, then we will go to members for questions.
Mr. Jason Fitzgerald:
I am chairman of the IFDL. I am here today with IFDL committee members Mr. Kenneth Fitzgerald, Mr. Morris Flynn and Mr. Sean Kelly. The IFDL was formed in August 2014 and in the interim it has been highlighting the disadvantageous position farmers have found themselves in since our lands became designated in either special protected areas, SPAs, special areas of conservation, SACs, or national heritage areas, NHAs.
These lands have been selected as important sites that may ensure that some of our endangered birds and habitats are sustained for future generations to enjoy. This is something we should all embrace. However, since lands in Ireland have been designated under EU directives there has been one clear loser, the owner of these lands - the farmer. Back in 1992, the Burren was designated a special area of conservation, SAC, with little or no engagement, consultation or consent from farmers. Through the 1990s and early 2000s large tracts of land, predominantly across the western regions were designated SACs and specially protected areas, SPA. In 2007-2008 a further 170,000 ha of land across nine counties was also designated for the protection of the hen harrier, an annex 1 bird. In total almost 15% of the Republic of Ireland has been designated under European directives. Some of our most picturesque hills, bogs, precious wetlands, rivers and productive agricultural land have been restricted, decimating the economic opportunity that was available prior to the designation occurring.
Ireland Inc. has benefitted to the tune of billions of euro over the decades from tourism, iconic imagery, the natural capital of these lands and, furthermore, through valuable the carbon sinks that these lands provide naturally.
The farmer, not the creator of these important lands but certainly the protector, guardian and custodian of its habitats, has been burdened by these designations, without access to meaningful compensatory solutions. Many generations have come and gone but all have passed on these lands with pride in their life's work to the next generation - a freehold, an asset, for the next generation to carry on, or to sell to seek a better quality of life or more profitable land, something previous generations may not have been able to achieve because of financial circumstances. It allowed farmers to walk into their local bank with a deed in one hand and using the other to firmly shake the bank manager's hand, at least knowing they could look the bank manager in the eye because they had something of value to negotiate with. Sadly this is no longer the case.
Depending on the type of designation and where it is situated, various degrees of devaluation have occurred. Farmers who have large amounts of land designated have suffered the worst but most have been disadvantaged or devastated by land devaluation. Their plans for the future, their plans for retirement and the hope of going into a bank with something tangible in their hand are gone. These farmers are no longer able to borrow against the deeds of their land because bank managers see no value or opportunity in mature designated areas. Unlike other farmers who take this for granted, as they should, regardless of what comes around the corner, they can leverage the value of their deeds against borrowings. However, this is no longer the case for designated areas throughout the country.
Farmers might want to invest in their business, or a medical emergency may occur, and they may need to sell a site. A death in the family may change everything. A farm that was once a valuable asset held with pride and care is now an asset that can be neither sold nor developed to take advantage of the economic opportunities that are available to neighbours who are lucky enough to escape the heavy handed pen of the National Parks & Wildlife Service. This is not only devastating farmers but also their families and their communities.
I will use an urban comparison of an industrial estate with two identical factories, one has suddenly become restricted while the other is free to develop, expand, upgrade and adapt to the changing economic environment. One will progress and in the event the owner needs to sell it, the owner will receive the market value for the business while the restricted business will ultimately close because of the bureaucratic and time-consuming nature of asking permission to carry out basic, necessary works over and above what the neighbouring business is required to do. The restricted business may not be allowed to develop or modernise and this will ultimately lead to the loss of jobs, revenue and local business and a loss to the local economy unless the full cost of the restrictions is paid to the business that is restricted - in effect, restoring the equilibrium of economic opportunity.
Among the most devastated areas are the six hen harrier SPAs involving some 3,760 farmers across nine counties including Clare, Cork, Galway, Kerry, Laois, Limerick, Monaghan, Offaly and Tipperary. As to why these farmers have suffered so badly, pressure came from Europe in the form of the birds case. Ireland was threatened under the judgment with fines because it did not carry out the designation process to protect certain species, including the hen harrier.
In November 2007, farmers were given a three-month window to object to the designation but even if the farmer in question was to object, there was no guarantee the appeal would be successful. Some farmers objected; more did not. Most farmers were happy with the designation because of the strength of the comprehensive and robust assurances that were offered. Farmers were offered a compensation scheme, access to afforestation and a devaluation rebalancing solution.
After the window of appealing the designation process had expired, the aforementioned scheme was launched but many barriers to entry appeared that had not previously been mentioned. As a consequence, only 370 of the 4,000 farmers managed to access the scheme. The scheme was suspended less than two years after it was launched. The payments through the scheme were €350 per hectare for the first 40 hectares and a reduced graduated payment thereafter.
Some 90% of the farmers who sat in community centres in 2007 to hear the National Parks and Wildlife Service outline the scheme have not received any compensatory solutions over and above access to schemes that were mainstream and open to non-designated farmers up until GLAS plus payments, in the very last days of 2016 and, in many cases, into 2017. Schemes such as REPS, AOES and GLAS were all mainstream schemes and available to all farmers regardless of whether they had designation or not. As a result, these had no positive effect on the valuation of land.
Many farmers believed this would all change after a commitment from the then former Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Simon Coveney, on 23 October 2015. He stated that a new locally led scheme would be targeted at farmers with large tracks of hen harrier land. He also stated that these farmers were forgotten and left behind and this new scheme would be comparable with the old hen harrier farm plan scheme. This is not the case under the recently announced scheme. Farmers are still left behind in some areas and their lands still remain sterilised and worthless.
Forestry has become a very contentious issue when mentioned in relation to hen harrier SPAs. As can be seen from figure 4 in the presentation, there was an agreed quota of over 9,000 hectares of afforestation to be planted in hen harrier SPA areas over a 15-year period. Each SPA was allocated a yearly quota. However, as can be seen in figure 5, only 1,100 of this agreed quota was delivered.
A clear commitment was given to farmers that afforestation would be generally permitted. This never materialised. As can be seen from figure 5, the levels of permits consistently fell below the targets. This was certainly not from lack of demand, but a deliberate attempt to restrict afforestation even further. The question remains that if afforestation had such a negative affect on the hen harrier, why was so much afforestation proposed at the outset. Farmers were well aware of the importance of additional afforestation in SPA areas. It meant that farmers would still be able sell land at similar market value to land outside of the designated area.
A complete ban on afforestation was put in place in 2011-12, despite the targets not being met. This was apparently related to poor results in the 2010 hen harrier survey. It was decided that a threat response plan would be established to look at the threat to the hen harrier. It is the end of January 2018 and no results have been published. This is nothing short of disgraceful. The threat response plan has been used as a stalling tactic, while farmers have been receiving zero compensation on land that they can neither sell nor plant.
Why would anyone want to buy designated land under the current criteria when the economic opportunities are non-existent?
The schemes available to date are also available to farmers outside designated areas. In general, wind energy companies will not work with private landowners. Coillte, however, has been accommodated by planning authorities for approvals in respect of wind turbines in hen harrier SPAs. There are more than 270 wind turbines in these SPAs. Of these, more than 230 have been erected since the lands, which are located in some of the most important nesting areas, became designated in 2007. This is despite county development plans against wind turbines in SPAs. Solar companies also steer clear of hen harrier SPAs because they are not willing to get into a time-consuming and costly bureaucratic battle with planning and environmental authorities. The largest landowner in this SPA, the State, has not suffered anything like the losses of opportunity or income from forestry as those endured by private landowners. This is very discriminatory and shows who is carrying the real cost of designated areas. This designation is costing farmers hundreds of millions of euro in opportunity costs.
It is quite clear why these lands have become devalued. The level of support is far too low and far too stop-start. A combination of things need to happen. Firstly, a statutory payment needs to be put in place and paid by the National Parks and Wildlife Service - or the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine - every year for every hectare of designated land in recognition of the restrictions of designation. Regardless of who is in government, this payment must be made every year. In the context of hen harrier SPAs, this payment must be at least €370 per hectare and must be index-linked. The most recent Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, included an option to pay farmers in designated areas such a payment type, similar to the areas of natural constraint, ANC, payment, but this was not taken up by Ireland.It was proposed to be 5% of Pillar 1.
Additional schemes to boost income further through actions or habitats improvement will be welcome thereafter but not in substitution for a payment per hectare as I have just outlined. Many of these lands are becoming abandoned. It is clear that the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine's policy is most definitely leading to abandonment of land, which is against EU policy.
These lands have recommended livestock limits and a new suckler cow scheme of €350 per cow or ewe scheme of €50 per ewe is warranted. These lands are under grazed which negatively affects the biodiversity cycle. It is our firm belief that farm abandonment or non-active farming is doing far more damage to the population of the hen harrier than forestry. The challenge is to support farming to the same level or above that of forestry payments. The payments must rise to a level that makes the market value of the land similar to the afforestation value. Currently, suitable forestry land outside designated areas is achieving up to €5,500 per acre whereas designated land of a similar type and quality is only achieving €800 to €1,200 per acre. This is absolutely unacceptable and the gap must be bridged.
Jim O' Brien recently wrote an article in the Irish Independentfarming section in which he stated that in the last 20 years there has been a 40% reduction in the number of people employed in agriculture and fisheries in Connacht and in counties such as Donegal. I am in no doubt that the same can be said for parts of Cork, Kerry, Limerick and Tipperary as well. I know of many townlands in which it is most likely that a child will never be born again. This is wrong and it is unacceptable for a small place like Ireland, with so many assets all over the State, to allow parts of our country to become abandoned.
The Citizens' Assembly recently highlighted just how valuable are Ireland's peat-type soils. Our soil type is currently offsetting a large percentage of Ireland's carbon emissions and it highlights our very valuable carbon sink.
Land devaluation can be addressed in a number of ways.
Unconditional afforestation related to undesignated areas suitable for afforestation should be allowed. A tax credit similar to the value of afforestation should be provided for the purchase of designated land; this tax credit would be removed at such time as approval for afforestation would be permitted. General afforestation incentives would then apply. It should be agreed with farmers that if they sell their land to the National Parks and Wildlife Service, NPWS, it would pay the difference between the sale price of the designated land and the market value of similar non-designated land, which was outlined in an agreement which was offered to farmers prior to the designation.
Where NPWS purchases the land from farmers it should give them give them the value of similar type non-designated land. I thank members for hearing our concerns and I hope that proper solutions can be found to address these problems conclusively.
Thank you Chairman. I welcome the delegation here today and indeed the farmers in the Gallery, some of whom are from my own county. When one talks about forgotten farmers, we are usually referring to young farmers, who fell outside the remit of the last CAP and failed because of different circumstances to get a significant single farm payment. We have a number of farmers in the country who own designated land who are certainly the forgotten farmers. It is the only scheme that I ever saw introduced at the stroke of a pen that totally devalued a farmer's assets. It is incomprehensible that this has been allowed to happen. How we allowed Brussels to bring in a scheme that completely depreciated the value of land has to be redressed, and redressed quickly.
I agree with about 90% of what Mr. Fitzgerald said, but there are one or two points I do not agree with. We must bring in a scheme that will restore the value of that land. That is the barometer on which we will judge any new scheme. This new scheme that is being proposed now by the Minister will go nowhere near restoring the value of the land. It is only putting a sticking plaster on a very, very deep cut. We are going to see land abandonment. We are going to see vast tracts of the countryside with no one living in them, and the purpose of this scheme is going to be defeated. These vast tracts of land will not contribute to habitats, as the EU hoped.
When the scheme that was first introduced when this designation came in, into which 350 farmers entered - it was subsequently suspended - did give reasonable compensation at the time to the farmers who were lucky enough to get into it. We need an uncomplicated scheme similar to that. A figure of €370 per hectare has been quoted and I would not disagree with that. That is the kind of scheme we need in order to restore the land value. If a proper scheme is put in place land value will be restored. To me, that is the key. I would not be looking to the National Parks and Wildlife Service to compensate farmers. I would be looking to a scheme that would put value back into this land so that forever and a day it would attract a premium, while the designation on the land lasts. While that designation lasts there is a moral obligation on the EU to compensate farmers. I would not be looking for anyone else to do it, it was the EU who introduced the designation and it should do this.
The one point I would disagree with is where Mr. Fitzgerald referred to Pillar 1 and that there was a proposal to take a percentage of the funds out of Pillar 1. That is robbing one farmer to pay another. There should be a separate budget for designated land. This was an EU scheme and the budget should be put in place and be specifically for designated land. We do not want to pitch one farmer against the other. A farmer with designated land should be entitled to this payment and it should come with no layers of red tape.
Obviously, anyone getting the payment would have to agree to the rules of the designation.
Regarding the blanket ban on forestry, especially on the hen harrier land, there is clear evidence to show that is not helping the population of hen harriers. Different stages of afforestation, with an amount of open land, will actually help the hen harrier population and will help them to breed and to increase their numbers. It has been shown that with the blanket ban, the number of pairs of hen harriers is actually dropping. What the EU has imposed is not working.
There is the other argument regarding the targets we have to meet on climate change. We need this designated land and we need afforestation to meet the targets that are going to be imposed on us. The blanket ban is not helping the hen harrier population and it is taking away the complete value of that land as well. It is not making sense on a number of horizons. What has been done to the farm families in that area is inexcusable and has to be addressed.
What does Mr. Fitzgerald feel is the best way of addressing the devaluation issue of designated land and how much would it actually cost? What are his concerns regarding the new scheme that has been introduced and how would he suggest that these concerns be addressed? Outside of the devaluation, has he any other major concerns? What structure should we put in place to keep farmers on the designated land and to bring them up to the same level as other farmers. I would like specific proposals from Mr. Fitzgerald on these issues. To me this is clear-cut enough and fairly straightforward. We have taken away the value of land, we have completely devalued it, and the only way that we can restore the value of that land to what it was prior to the designation is by putting a scheme in place that each farmer will get X amount per hectare for obeying the restrictions that have been imposed by designation. That must be done and we need a separate budget for that. I would not talk about Pillar 1 or Pillar 2, that is defeating the purpose. The EU brought in this scheme and it must fund it. To me that is what we have to achieve, and it is the job of our Minister to deliver a scheme. This €25 million that has been proposed by the Minister is nowhere near adequate.
Thank you Chairman. I welcome Mr. Fitzgerald again here today and the farmers and others in the audience. Deputy Cahill summed a lot of it up there. The issue is very clear as far as I am concerned. What we have is designation without any compensation, and that is a problem that we have in many parts of the country for various things. The EU comes in - we had it with our bogs and various other issues - and says this is an important asset for the whole country, not just for the owners of the land, and therefore the State is going to put some kind of a designation on it. This basically restricts the use of property and when one restricts the use of land, one devalues it. That is the problem here. The devaluing of the land occurs in many parts of the country, and there is a particular focus on the hen harrier issue here. In many areas farmers are farming the way they have always farmed and it is not affecting them from the point of what they normally do but it does affect them from the point of view of whether they are able to borrow on that land or able to sell that land. There is a little more to it than that. The way the farmer has traditionally farmed the land was protecting the environmental status of that land. We need that to continue. I know there was an issue in the past in the Burren, where there were big restrictions in the number of stock, and it actually went in the other direction in that they needed farmers to have a certain level of stock to ensure that the environment was protected properly. What we are saying here is that the farmer is providing a service to the State and to the environment and we need to pay the farmer adequately for it.
Farmers are providing a service to the State and in respect of the environment. To provide that service, we need to pay farmers adequately for it. There must be a scheme for farmers who are on designated land to get something in order to ensure that they provide the service to which I refer. Naturally, all the schemes would have conditions attached to them. GLAS and the other schemes from the past are environmental schemes for everybody. There is, however, a particular aspect to this because the land has a specific designation attached to it and there will be a requirement to have something extra to compensate for that designation.
I am aware that the issue around sale of the land has been brought up and if someone sells their land they may only receive half the price per hectare as non-designated lands, a price which could somehow be topped up. If there was an adequate scheme in place, there would not be a difference regarding the value of the property. If a State sponsored scheme was in place that the Government stood over, then it would clearly be there into the future. It would, therefore, enhance the value of the land and ensure that it would not fall behind other land values.
The biggest problem facing many of the farmers I meet throughout the State - and certainly in my area in Leitrim and west Cavan - arises when officials from the National Parks and Wildlife Service come in and say that a certain wildflower has the potential to grow in two particular fields and, therefore, the farmer can never do anything with the land again. There is very little explanation coming from these officials. They seem to be able to ride roughshod over everything but without providing an adequate explanation as to how or why they can do so or outlining from where their powers come. How these guys can go in and do that is a big issue that needs to be dealt with. They just walk in and say "Sorry guys you are not going to plant that land or do anything with it because we have designated it". There is a real issue that needs to be looked at in respect of the criteria relating to designated lands in this regard. It is happening all over the place and farmers can do nothing when they are wiped out overnight.
The solution is to put an adequate compensation scheme in place for the designation. Until this happens, we will have a big problem. The point was made that the Department or some other entity would make up the balance if the farmer sold the land. I do not believe this would work and it is not a direction in which we should seek to go. There should be scheme put in place that will adequately compensate for the land designation. When this is in place it should be separate and distinct from GLAS schemes or any other general scheme for farmers. It must be specifically for farmers with designated lands. The sooner such a scheme is brought into place the better. I do not believe that the Minister's recently announced scheme is adequate. I do not believe it can do enough. Somebody needs to go back to the drawing board and let them know that.
There are only some 4,000 farmers affected by this issue currently. This figure may increase if more farmers' lands are designated. As matters stand, it is not a major big issue and that may be why it has not been resolved sooner. I accept that it may not be a big issue from one perspective. It will not cost a terribly large amount of money to resolve if the right effort is made and if there is the proper consensus-building between the farmers involved, the Department and the National Parks and Wildlife Service. The only person who can stand over the building of that consensus is the Minister. The Minister has to step up to the plate to ensure we can build the consensus and we can come up with a solution that can work.
I join colleagues in welcoming the deputation. I thank its members for their very comprehensive presentation. I will not dwell for too long because Deputy Martin Kenny and my party colleague, Deputy Cahill, have elucidated the issues very well.
I concur with a lot of what Deputy Cahill said. Farmers in designated areas have been very poorly treated in this matter. There is no doubt that their ability to farm has been severely restricted. The commitment they were given at the time in respect of when the designation could be appealed has not been followed through on. Not only does this affect the day-to-day ability to farm, it also affects the overall value of land. The latter is a point that the witnesses outlined very clearly. Value has been drastically affected. This matter needs to be redressed and the position rebalanced.
The fact that only 376 of the 4,000 farmers affected were able to go into the first scheme - the payment levels relating to which were in some way substantial compared to what is on offer at the moment - shows how restrictive it was. For the 90% who were excluded at that time, promises were made regarding what might be coming down the line in future schemes. However, those promises have also not been followed through on.
Senator Paul Daly, Deputy Cahill and I met the witnesses and other representatives previously and they provided a very good outline of the key issues. We have advocated on their behalf in this regard. Negotiations on the next CAP are ongoing and very much live. This situation has to be a real issue that the EU and Ireland should seek to redress. There is no doubt that the designation placed on farmers has restricted them and it has damaged the value of their land. These farmers are providing a public good, contributing to the economy and ensuring that there is a habitat for hen harriers. In doing so, and in return for the designation, the farmers should be compensated. This has not been the case.
This matter arises in the Dáil on a regular basis. Deputies Aindrias and Michael Moynihan and Murphy O'Mahony, all of whom were in attendance earlier, have raised it with me and it has been raised by others also. It must be part of the mix in ensuring a proper scheme is put in place and proper compensation for designation becomes part of the next CAP.
I shall now turn to overall costs regarding the assessment of what is required to provide appropriate compensation for farmers whose lands are designated. I understand that there are various options as to how it might happen but perhaps the IFDL will outline what might be the cost.
Will the witnesses also explain what engagement has taken place with other farming organisations? Have any positions been agreed on working together or in coming to a common platform?
Mr. Jason Fitzgerald:
Yes, I would like to respond.
There have been some slightly negative comments about the idea of the National Parks and Wildlife Service compensating farmers for land designation, but we must bear in mind that €350 or €370 per hectare was only part of the picture. Farmers who had 40 ha of land would be able to get that scheme. They were led to believe, and it was outlined in all the literature and documentation in clear black and white writing that they would also be able to plant. That option is no longer there and €370 per hectare is nowhere near enough. We commissioned a consultation with a forestry company around the value of forestry and why it is making €5,000 and €5,500 per hectare. In the consultants' estimation it is because the land is worth €625 per year over a 35 year period. This is a huge amount of money and I cannot see the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine putting in a scheme of that length and that level of money to compensate for that value. This, however, is the reality. This is based on people who are going to their banks, doing their calculations and coming up with that figure. I suggested this amount because we need a scheme that pays a base payment. I believe that most farmers, if they were getting €370 per hectare and if their land value was restored, would be quite happy. Obviously, it would have to be index-linked and would move with the consumer price index. I feel that most farmers would be quite happy with that. If, however, the scheme alone is used to bring back the value of the land it would have to be significantly more than that because schemes are taxed on top of that payment, but the forestry is not.
With regard to proposal that the National Parks and Wildlife Service could pay the balance, it was clearly outlined in my submission - in the final paragraph on page 4 - that the service had agreed to do this if land became devalued. I am not reinventing the wheel. I only suggest that the National Parks and Wildlife Service lives up to its expectations. The total amount of land sold in 2016 was just short of 34,000 acres. This was just 0.26% of all the land in Ireland. There are only 56,000 ha of land in the designated areas. I am aware that a lot of land might come up for sale. If, however, a scheme was in place whereby the same value was put on the land, I do not believe that would happen.
Taking the national figures, on the 56,000 ha of land mentioned, it would cost less than €600,000 to sort out the devaluation issue in the hen harrier designated areas in terms of that aspect alone because one would give assurance to the farmers. They could go into their banks and say their land is no longer devalued because if they sell their land on the market, they will have a letter from the National Parks & Wildlife Service saying it is going to pay the balance, that is, in the context of their neighbour's land down the road where their land was worth the same prior to the designation. It is a tiny amount of money. Some people in the National Parks & Wildlife Service or the Department of Finance may say one would have to do this for all the people in the designated areas but let us look at that issue. If one expands it out, 15% of the country is designated and much of that designation is close to river banks and does not comprise blocks of land like in the hen harrier areas. However, even if that was the case, if such as scheme was to be brought in, we believe it would cost around €7 million per year to compensate farmers in all designated areas for devaluation. That is going by the figures outlined here. That is why it is desperately important that there is a good scheme in place so that people do not feel they have to sell the land. I suggested the figure of €600,000 in the hen harrier areas. Taking two young farmers, for example, who we have trained and sent through college and who have great ideas, great energy and want to farm, which is what their fathers did, we are now asking them to farm their land in accordance with providing for the hen harrier. They were providing for the hen harrier prior to any designation and were only delighted to do so. There is no issue between the farmer and the hen harrier. The issue is the effect this designation has caused to their income, their future and their economic opportunities.
Taking two farmers with 200 acres each on which they put 150 cows, the value to the local income over a five-year period would be well over that figure for one year. We are looking at this with a closed vision. Many people are imprisoned on their land. There are people who are 65 or 70 years of age who are not able to farm their land. They just want to plant their land so they can live out the rest of their lives in peace, as they should, because they have worked hard enough all their lives. There are other people who want to sell their land because they might be sick or maybe a loved one has died. I have been to too many funerals of those who have died broken-hearted and emotionally destroyed because of this. Their land was handed down from their parents. They believe that they have let that generation and the next one down because the truth is their sons and daughters do not want to know anything about this land as it is a noose around their necks.
Deputy Cahill mentioned the new scheme. I have no issue with the new scheme, the hen harrier project people are very professional, they are easy to work with and they are at the end of the telephone at any time we contact them. Our issue with the scheme is that it is discriminatory against some farmers. Let us take a farmer who has over 19 ha. One farmer who contacted me last week said he has a large amount of ground. The problem with the points system is one is paid differently for different land. Every single hectare of land is designated equally, it has similar restrictions and it has been devalued to a similar level but we are now going to pay people differently according to the habitat on that land and that is completely wrong. I would have no issue with it if the base payment was in place on every hectare first, and then farmers could do as they wished. They might or might not take it on. I have no doubt people will say this is a great success as 1,100 farmers have already signed up to it. If one has nothing else, of course, one will sign up to it. If one does not have an option of planting trees or anything else, this is the only option available and, of course, one will sign up to it. One does what one has to do to survive, and that is what it is all about.
The other aspect of the scheme about which we are not particularly happy is the hen harrier payment because farmers cannot influence that payment at all. The scheme should be designed around what farmers can or cannot implement. We also have another issue regarding the setting up of the scheme. A bottom-up approach was to be taken in regard to this scheme.
Despite the promise from the Minister, Deputy Creed, last January that we would have a position on the steering committee there has been no farming representative on the steering committee during the design stage of the scheme. That is a big issue. This scheme can work. I believe a proper base payment should be put in place first and there should be an addition so people who want to improve the habitat and do whatever they want can do so. As regards GLAS, there is a management plan to fulfil, which encourages one to spread lime and fertiliser but that is working completely opposite to this new scheme, which is designed to grow different flower or plant species. If somebody spreads the fertiliser and complies with the GLAS scheme the person is doing damage and reducing their score under the other one.
Mr. Jason Fitzgerald:
I attended two of them and our members probably attended 95% of the meetings. In fairness, there were many meetings. I have no issue with the hen harrier project. The people are very professional and they have done a good job thus far, and I believe they will do a good job. They are really interested in providing for the hen harrier and I believe they will be a success. The issue is not with the hen harrier project but with the scheme that was rolled out. We should have had a payment from 19 ha upwards first, with this put on top of it to increase the habitat. This is a completely different scheme from GLAS.
Mr. Jason Fitzgerald:
GLAS and GLAS+ is €7,000 and the new scheme depends on how good one's habitat is. I am aware of a farmer who has 200 acres of very green ground. Obviously, he will score very low. He might not even qualify. We know another farmer who received a letter from John Gormley in 2007 stating that it was an extremely important habitat, one of the most important in the country. He fears from the consultation he has had with representatives from the hen harrier project that some of his land will score very high and some of it will score very low. That is the problem. This is all very valuable land. It is all carrying the same burden so it should be paid equally in our view.
I met Mr. Fitzgerald three years ago when I was on the then agriculture committee and my views have not changed but have solidified in that regard. I believe these farmers have been badly let down by the State and the European Commission. Both stand indicted for how Mr. Fitzgerald and his colleagues have been treated. I view this from a legal perspective. This is the equivalent of a burden on people's title. It means it is not readily disposable or if it is disposable, it will be at a value significantly less than the market value. That is a huge imposition on anybody. From a legal perspective it is a restriction on alienation, which is a fundamental principle in terms of how one disposes of land. I always thought these farmers had a very strong legal case, and I made that point to them previously. I have not changed my mind on that.
Large tracts of land are effectively being sterilised and made significantly less valuable. Land designation that is put forward in this way, that is, by way of a State authority, namely, the National Parks and Wildlife Service, implementing an EU directive or regulation, absolutely is expropriation of land without an appropriate compensation mechanism. That is laid down in the Constitution and in case law such as Dreher v. the Irish Land Commission, ILC, and in respect of the Office of Public Works.
A significant corpus of constitutional law and case law makes the case of Irish Farmers with Designated Land impossible to argue against. I am strong in respect of where the group stands in that regard.
The biggest thing I see is that when those involved entered the scheme, they had a legitimate expectation that they would be paid the amount agreed. The figure was €350 per hectare for up to 40 ha, with a reducing amount thereafter. A fundamental European law principle applies and it cannot be disturbed. The farmers' group has been treated in an illegal fashion in my view. We cannot do that. We cannot get farmers to sign up to a scheme on a particular basis and, irrespective of the financial situation that prevails, then pull the rug from under them in the way this was done. Farmers signed up on the basis of one set of facts and circumstances with the compensation mechanism. That has been wiped away. Then the farmers find themselves with a significantly different set of circumstances, effectively wiping it out altogether.
There are three perspectives. I have spoken to some people from the same area as the group. The nearest place to me that is affected is the Slieve Bloom Mountains, but we are badly affected with many other things in the midlands. The farmers group should come up to the midlands to hear about various designations. The group of 4,000 would see that they are not the only farmers affected. We are affected all over the place. We live near many rivers and canals and various other things.
Given the three legal principles, the farmers group has a strong case against the State and the EU Commission. The sterilisation of land is a matter the Supreme Court has followed carefully and there is no doubt about its view. The State can step in, make compulsory purchase orders and sterilise land provided there are adequate compensation mechanisms. The argument of the farmers' group is reinforced by the fact that there is a significant opportunity cost in terms of not being able to explore alternatives. Afforestation alternatives would normally be available. Wind turbines are not mentioned where I live because I am absolutely opposed to that nonsense. They are ineffective, inefficient and nonsensical. Thankfully, we banned them from the midlands and we are proud of it. They are nonsense. I recommend not putting them anywhere near me because I am steadfastly opposed to them. I led a campaign and drafted legislation against them. Much of it was based on corporate greed at the expense of community involvement.
I am the opposite of the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Creed, in many ways but I believe he will see the logic of this formula. This is the second or third visit of the farmers' group and I have been on the agricultural committee for each visit. The witnesses might think that I am institutionalised but I am not; I like this committee. In any event, if this formula does not work, the next remedy for the group is to go to the courts to take on the State. There will be costs involved - and I realise the group is running a sinking fund as well - but I have no doubt that the group would win. I do not believe the State wants to do that.
I know someone down in that part of the country. I am involved with someone down in that part of the country who will be doing some work in this area by writing a book on it. This is a matter about which I feel strongly.
I know from experience that once an area is designated, the appeal mechanism available is not worth the paper it is written on. Once designated, I have never seen an area de-designated as a result of an appeal. There is no circumscribing the powers in force. People can argue all they like, but I imagine there are few successful cases of landowners getting their land designated. I would be delighted if anyone could give me examples, but it would be news to me.
Several solutions have been proposed and advocated before the committee. It is better to go back to the base payment proposal, get that in and work from there.
I wish the farmers' group well and I support those involved 100%. I do not like to see impediments in cases where people in limited areas who may be elderly wish to dispose of a site perhaps to look after a dependant, whether child or adult. These people are precluded by the State from doing so.
I support the idea of the State being able to interfere. Compulsory purchase orders, CPOs, are important for road infrastructure, house-building and so on. I am not resiling from that viewpoint, but the State should always compensate appropriately at market value. The State can interfere on that basis. If the State used the same principles in this case as it does for CPO procedures, then the farmers' group would not be up and down to Dublin from Cork or wherever they are based. I applaud the group for keeping the fight going and I will support it, irrespective of the fact that it is based a long way from me and the matter does not affect my constituents. If one is hurt, we are all hurt. That is the way we should look upon a situation like this.
I have another meeting to go to at 5 p.m. so I will be brief. I thank the delegation for the presentation. It has been very informative and helpful. The representatives from Irish Farmers with Designated Land mentioned three areas where issues arise. Planning was one issue, especially in the context of solar farms and wind turbines, as mentioned by my colleague. Will the group elaborate on how the county development plans have changed, altered or affected them with regard to once-off planning? Has designation become an issue? County development plans come under the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government. How has that affected designation?
Will the group representatives elaborate on the position regarding the National Parks and Wildlife Service? The matter crosses over between the Departments responsible for agriculture and wildlife. The service is the designated body and it is responsible for designating the lands. My colleague on my right referred to the appeals process and how ineffective it has been in moving some designations. Will the representatives of the group elaborate on their views regarding where they are going and how that can be progressed?
The other question is where the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine fits in. It is amazing that this issue probably crosses three Departments, if not more, from what I have determined so far. There are issues with the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. A scheme is in place for which there is a budget of €25 million. There is an issue regarding the payment for between one and 19 ha. The payment does not continue all the way through. Is that the major grievance in respect of the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and the payment structure? Are there other issues the group can highlight for me?
I must leave to attend another meeting but I will be picking up on the answers later.
I thank the Chairman for facilitating me. I welcome the witnesses. I was struck by several things. I do not intend to repeat questions already posed. The farmers group has given several answers to the questions I had intended asking.
The first question relates to forestry. Is there specific information on how much or what percentage of forestry per landholding would be accepted? Is the farmers group looking for 100% of the landholding to be forestry?
Obviously, I am coming to this from a new perspective. Are figures available in respect of how, in the context of the life and environment of the hen harrier, the figures have been affected since the land has been designated?
There is an anomaly in respect of GLAS payments. The representatives referred to an apparent anomaly and that one benefit counteracts the other. It seems the farmers are getting benefits from one side and then are being caught on the other. Can they elaborate on the position in that regard?
Mr. Jason Fitzgerald:
I will start at the end because it is easier. Under the measures, basically if a farmer were to enforce the nutrient management plan to the last, he may damage the prospect of growing these plant species. Mr. Fergal Monaghan is present and he may elaborate on the point later. Under the scoring mechanism, a farmer is marked on how good his habitat is.
I attended a meeting in Scarriff in County Clare, an area that comes under the hen harrier project. That issue was highlighted from the floor and it was agreed by the speaker that if farmers comply with their green, low-carbon, agri-environment scheme, GLAS, plan, it may produce a lesser score for their habitat. Obviously, the aim in terms of the habitat is to make their land more biodiversity friendly, while GLAS concentrates on lime and pH levels. There is a contradiction between those two.
On the forestry question, it is all or nothing. It is not that farmers want to plant forestry. Some farmers may want to plant a small portion of their ground, but generally they do so because forestry the only mechanism available to get the full value for their land. Certain elderly people would like to plant their land. Some farmers may like to plant a proportion of their land that is unmanageable because it is an area of high rainfall. It varies from farm to farm. If a farmer has an investor coming in or if another farmer wants to buy their land and the farmer wants to get the market value for it, the other farmer is not going to give the farmer the full market value price for the land unless he or she can plant the entire plot of land similar to those outside the designated areas. That is the key point. Certain people might be happy if a certain amount of forestry came back into play. However, it would not address the devaluation issue. Regard must always be had to the person who wishes to buy the land with respect to what he or she is looking for and what that person needs to get to be able to achieve this price.
Mr. Jason Fitzgerald:
The agreement deals specifically with capital lost. It states that the compensation payable will be the difference between the pre-designated value and the post-designated value. The Deputy will note from that why I suggested the National Parks and Wildlife Service would pay the balance, which is suggested there in black and white. I am not reinventing the wheel. That has been set out.
The kernel of where Mr. Fitzgerald is coming on this issue is that when farmers entered the scheme in 2007, he said most farmers were happy with the designation because of the strength of the comprehensive and robust assurances that were offered. Obviously, he believes he entered that scheme in good faith and what has happened subsequently, which is outside his control, is something completely different. He is being forced to agree to a completely different agreement. Is that correct?
Mr. Jason Fitzgerald:
These are honourable, genuine people. They did not seek this designation or the scheme. They believed that when the State came knocking on their doors offering them something, it would stand by that. The scheme was not on offer on the day of the designation. The three-month period had elapsed. The scheme was launched later that summer. When it was launched there were a few barriers to accessing it. People who were participating in the rural environment protection scheme, REPS, could not cross over to it, or they could if they paid back all the money. If a person owned land, he or she was required to have owned it for the previous three years. If a person was renting land, he or she had to have a lease on it for the previous five years. Effectively, a person would have had to be in the middle of an 11 year agreement to join the scheme. All those small issues were a barrier to people joining it. The National Parks and Wildlife Service could clearly identify those who were participating in REPS and at what stage they were. By the time they all came out of that scheme in 2010, this scheme was closed. Many farmers in our group were on the point of joining the scheme, several of whom are in the Deputy's constituency, and they failed because of that prospect. The trust between the farmer and the State was binding and the farmers believed it was credible, but they found out about that later to their cost.
I agree wholeheartedly with the Deputy with respect to the GLAS payment being extended. Given that forestry is no longer an option, every hectare needs to paid for now. It is different from what happened previously. Forty ha was acceptable as an alternative but there is no alternative now. Therefore, every single hectare needs to be paid at that level. The problem we face is that farmers are in year three of GLAS. I hope the committee puts this point to the Department of Agriculture, Food and Marine. When happens to a farmer who is in year three of the hen harrier project scheme and comes out of GLAS? Those farmers with large tracts of land would be down €7,000. What will happen then? That is something that needs to be addressed.
I believe those were the points regarding GLAS.
Mr. Jason Fitzgerald:
The problem with the National Parks and Wildlife Service appeals process is that it only allows people who want to de-designate their land to bring forward a case on the basis of scientific evidence. How can a farmer find scientific evidence to carry a case? Farmers cannot bring a case on economic grounds, or that they need to sell their land because a family member is very ill, or on the basis of any of the other reasons that one would consider reasonable. They can only do so on basis of scientific evidence. It is grand to say one can only appeal on the basis of scientific evidence, but if what was on offer on the first day was still on offer, no one would be appealing. People would be generally happy enough.
The county development plan was mentioned. Many farmers have approached the council for planning permission for the erection of wind turbines in areas adjacent to where wind turbines have been erected already in designated areas by the people operating in partnership with Coillte on Coillte owned land in these areas, but they have been bluntly turned down. They have been told they should not even apply. These farmers have very valuable land. It is important to make that point. It is not tillage or good grass ground, nor will they milk three cows to the hectare on it. However, it is very valuable ground from a forestry, natural capital and carbon sink point of view. Farmers cannot avail of the opportunities coming down the line in terms of solar panels and wind energy, yet they see people in the same designated area who are supposed to have the exact same restrictions applied being able to avail of them. It is very wrong. That is my point regarding the county development plan and what is happening in these designated areas. It is wrong that one group of people is treated one way and another group is treated completely differently. The forestry on the State land owned by Coillte exists there because the ground was planted prior to designation and, obviously, by law, it has to replant it. Those who have erected wind turbines seem to be able to develop their land, but that opportunity is not available to farmers in the designated areas.
I welcome Mr. Sean Kelly, Mr. Kenneth Fitzgerald, Mr. Jason Fitzgerald, Mr. Morris Flynn, all the farmers in the Gallery and all those in the audiovisual room who are following these proceedings. These are all respectable, honest, hard-working people who have done nothing wrong and who did not set out to do anything wrong. They all love their land and the place where they live. Irrespective of whether it was handed down to them or they bought it, many of them would have found it a struggle at times to do that. This racket, whether it is coming from Europe or here, is caused by environmentalists who have put these people under this pressure. The Chairman and I know that those people have more interest in the hen harrier than they have in these people who are trying to rear their families, get on with their lives and have not done anything wrong. They will not be allowed to clean out a drain or a river on their land. Even if the water comes in the door of their house, they will not be allowed to clean out the river.
There is no compensation for what is happening to these people. One farmer told me that he inherited 80 acres of land a few years ago and paid €27,000 in stamp duty on whatever the place was worth at that time. However, it has reduced in value now. It was worth around €5,000 an acre at that time but it now only worth a €1,000 an acre. He found it difficult to pay the stamp duty at that time but if he had to pay it now, he would not be able to do so it because there has been an 80% reduction in the value of his land. We all create a fuss when a person's house is broken into, a person's car is stolen or a person's valuables are stolen, but this is daylight robbery.
People's farms have been taken from them. This is what has happened. The value of their farms has gone, meaning their farms have been taken from them. They cannot plant them. No wind turbine company will come into them. They cannot farm them at all.
This is heavy land. We are talking about Ballydesmond, Cordal, Brosna and then on the Cork side there is Rockchapel and Newmarket, and then there is Castleisland and Knocknagashel. These lands are not fit; they are not like the Curragh of Kildare. A lot of work needs to be done to them in order that they could be farmed in a fair way. They are not allowed to do that because they are restricted. In other words, they are paralysed from doing anything.
All they are asking for is compensation. It is fine for these fellows out in Europe or around the country. We know a lot of them, these environmentalists. If they want to protect the hen harrier, that is fine. However, these people are entitled to compensation for that. If someone's house or someone else's hotel was devalued by 80%, there would be ructions. These are very quiet people. I have been at several meetings in places such as Abbeyfeale, Newcastle West, Castleisland, Scartaglin and Cordal. These people are very badly hurt.
I am calling on our MEPs, the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, and Commissioner Phil Hogan - that big man out in Europe - to look after these people. We must represent the minority, as well as the majority. Too often in this Chamber the tail is wagging the dog. These people are entitled to fair play and they have not been getting it. When I raised the matter with the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine in the Dáil back in October I was promised that people would be compensated. This scheme of €25 million will not compensate these people; it is not fair. As I understand it, this is their fourth or fifth time coming up here. Deputy Penrose knows how many times they have come up here.
This is absolutely ridiculous. The Chairman is a member of the Fine Gael party, which is in government with the support of Fianna Fáil. They are joined together. I am asking both of them now to look after these people because they are people. They are not wildlife or species from another planet; they are our people. I can see people here from east and north Kerry and north-west Cork. They are entitled to the same consideration as the people in Dublin, Cork city or any of the other affluent places around the country. These people need to be looked after because they have been neglected for far too long.
I have a question for Mr. Jason Fitzgerald. He has said clearly that he would have to get €370 per hectare in order to get a fair crack at the whip. They cannot sell their places; they are worthless. No one will look at them, which is a shame. As I said, it is daylight robbery. If that amount of money was taken from an individual in a town or if it was taken from a bank, there would be uproar. These devils who took the money did not get a gun to do it but they have done it and have devalued people's places to such an extent that they are worthless.
These people should be allowed to plant their land, which I believe would be a fair option, but there is no option. If people were allowed to plant the amount of land they wished to plant, would that help them?
We will have to fight for that if it would.
Why can Coillte have wind farms beside these places? What is wrong here? It is ridiculous that Coillte, a semi-State body can attract a wind farm. I actually support wind farms. However, in places like these they are not close to many people and would not hurt many people. The houses are scarce. If the people involved wanted to attract a wind farm, I am sure there would be agreement from the neighbouring farmers so that they would upset no one. As Deputy Penrose has said, in the midlands, the turbines are being located too close to villages, towns or residential areas simply because they are not being left out on the hills and these kinds of places where these people are talking about. That is the reason. There is a lot of talk about climate change and meeting our targets. I do not agree with this notion of climate change and the way that some of these environmentalists are on. We have always had climate change. Why not help the people by allowing them to plant forestry?
This could be sorted out in a number of ways. I ask Mr. Jason Fitzgerald to answer my question on compensation: how much would satisfy the witnesses? If they could plant the land or attract wind turbines, what would satisfy them?
I also welcome the delegation. Mr. Jason Fitzgerald has visited my constituency clinic on a few occasions. I compliment him on his work on behalf of the organisation in trying to keep the issue burning and hopefully eventually get some level of satisfaction. When we spoke last, he outlined that if the commitments given in 2007 had been upheld and adhered to, he probably would not have been sitting here. Is that still the case? Why was it not possible to hold successive Governments to account to achieve what was offered?
We sit in these rooms offering support to the witnesses but at the end of the day, the only way to support them is by delivering on what was originally offered - what they signed up to in good faith, but has not been delivered. The focus of the campaign continues to be to deliver what was originally offered. How far will the €25 million announced in December go? What needs to be achieved to give those farmers their justice?
My second question is on afforestation. My understanding was that what was originally offered on afforestation would have been sufficient for most of the landowners affected but when they try to apply for afforestation, they are refused. Why is that? What can we, as Oireachtas Members, do to get over that obstacle? They signed up for something on the basis that if they went for afforestation they would get it but they cannot. Why is that? I spoke to some of the Members from Kerry in the audiovisual room.
They pointed out that solar is being ruled out or rather that there is no interest in solar from the companies. Why is that and what can we do to resolve the issue? Wind turbines are controversial, but not in every area. Our county development plan in Kerry designates preferred zones in which the turbines generally do not bother too many people. They are a valuable source of income. It was indicated in the presentation, however, that it is not happening for landowners but rather it is only the Coilltes of this world that seem to get wind turbines over the line. Is there something we can do to assist in that regard? The witnesses have come here three or four times to make the same argument. It would be nice if they could go away with something. As a Member of the Oireachtas, I would like to be in a position to get some result other than support and a pat on the back, which is not much use to people looking for hope. I would be interested in the witnesses' comments on those issues as I would like to work towards achieving some result for them.
As I am not a member of the committee, I thank the Chairman for the opportunity to speak here. I welcome my neighbours on the delegation, including those in the audiovisual room. I know full well that they have 101 other things to do rather than to be here before an Oireachtas committee. I know how strongly they feel about the issue given the huge amount of work they have done over the years to advance the case on land designation. Quite simply, land designation has wiped out the value of their land and stifled any development. There was mention earlier in the meeting of once-off houses. If one went into Cork County Council to seek planning on designated land on our side of the Cork-Kerry-Limerick border, they would nearly have the people in the white coats arrest one. They have stifled planning on designated land.
A number of issues arise. I note the €25 million scheme and the way points are scored to get the maximum benefit. Some of the criteria such as those on the breeding of the hen harrier are completely outside the landowner’s capacity to control or his or her responsibility. It is in the hands of nature to decide how much compensation a farmer will get from the scheme. It is completely ridiculous. If the land is designated by the EU for the protection of the hen harrier and if the EU is so concerned about that, those farmers whose lands have, in effect, been sterilised should be compensated accordingly. That has to underpin any scheme going forward. The witnesses have been looking at fair compensation for their contribution. I was not here at the earlier part of the meeting, but I followed it on the monitor and I heard the witnesses outlining the case on fair compensation.
There has been talk for the last year or two on the threat response for forestry. Where is that at currently? I have a parliamentary question down on it this week but we do not have any facts yet. These lands are very close to where I live. There are designated lands within half a mile. When land is for sale to which a hen harrier designation attaches, it simply takes up space in the auctioneer's window. There are no bids and no one will touch it with a barge pole because nothing can be done with it. I do not want to mention any farms, but where there are 120 acres or so for sale, there has not been even one bid over the past 12 months because so much of it is designated for the hen harrier.
That is what the witnesses have been saying since they set up their organisation a number of years ago. The designation has depressed the book value of their land to zero and they cannot do anything with it.
The witnesses put it to me outside that some people with the exact same designation can get wind turbine or afforestation development permissions but others cannot. That has to be answered by the arms of the State which are granting those permissions. The pitch must be fair for everybody. I could go on. Others have made very sound points. This is a crisis and an issue that must be dealt with to get a proper resolution for the witnesses because, if not, there will be huge land abandonment in north west Cork and parts of Kerry, Limerick and Tipperary. That will mean people will not be living in those areas. The witnesses are quite well aware of the position facing GAA clubs in their areas. They are either amalgamating or ceasing to exist. These are human issues. We are looking at an explosion of the population along the east coast. One could nearly draw a line from Mallow to the east and to the west. There is a different attitude on either side of it. This is part of the problem that has to be addressed.
Fair compensation must be paid. If the EU wants to designate the land, landowners must be compensated accordingly. GLAS and the hen harrier scheme depend on outside forces and it is nature that determines, even where a person joins a scheme, the maximum value a farmer can get. I thank the witnesses again and repeat that they are very welcome, as are their colleagues in the audiovisual room.
I thank the Chairman for allowing me to speak this evening. Like my colleagues, I welcome everyone here and in the audiovisual room. It is probably not a major issue for the constituency I represent in south-west Cork but I am a farmer and I stand by my fellow farmers regardless of where they come from or what is the issue. I have a few questions but I will not keep the witnesses too long. My colleague, Deputy Danny Healy-Rae, mentioned environmentalists. The witnesses know as well as I do that the birds and bees are far ahead with environmentalists than human beings. The witnesses are a prime example. The cost of this has come to them. As has been said, these farmers are fine, honest, hard-working people. There was a trust between the farmer and the State and that trust has been surely been broken.
Has any legal challenge been taken against this decision? I am involved in south west Cork in a legal challenge to the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine on the massive fines applied to farmers in relation to gorse. We have travelled the length and breadth of the country to raise money for that. I remember going back perhaps five years ago, if it was that long, that people affected by the hen harrier issue were in a similar position. Did they ever go forward with a legal challenge? Our challenge is before the courts and awaiting a hearing date. We do not know what the outcome will be, but we will see.
The other farm organisations are out there. Are they working with the witnesses to resolve this? I refer to the IFA, the ICSA, the ICMSA and any others. I hope I did not leave any of them out. What have they been doing all along? Have they been at the side of the IFDL and have they been vocal? They are vocal on many issues and this one is equally important. It affects 4,000 farmers and a farmer is a farmer no matter what is the issue. Coillte, wind turbines and solar energy were mentioned. I do not think farms will go into that area because it is a minefield. There is no regulation for solar farms. One can do what one likes but as soon as the solar farms are granted planning permission, the regulation will come along. We will not go there. I would appreciate answers to the questions I asked. One has to come at this from every angle to assert one's basic human rights.
I am not a member of this committee but I felt so strongly about the whole thing that I sought permission to attend. I welcome the farmers from west Cork who are present here or in the audiovisual room.
Much of what I will say has been said already but I would like to put on record that I feel strongly about it. I have a sense of fairness and the devaluation of land through no fault of the farmers is unacceptable. A scheme must be put in place to compensate these landowners. The EU has done this; not the farmers themselves. We all know how hard farmers work in west Cork and everywhere else and it is not fair that they are suffering as a result of this EU idea. A proper budget really must be put in place and I will work with my Fianna Fáil colleagues on this committee to put pressure on the Minister to deliver on this.
Mr. Jason Fitzgerald:
Other farming organisations have been very supportive and we could not say anything negative about them. We have much in common with the Irish Natura and Hill Farmers Association. The Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers Association, ICMSA, the Irish Cattle and Sheep Farmers Association, ICSA, and the Irish Farmers Association, IFA, have all been very helpful. We have no complaints whatsoever about them. Everyone seems to be pushing in the same direction now and we hope that is the case.
On the National Parks and Wildlife Service, there is a monitoring committee working at present that is giving consideration to renegotiating the agreement I spoke about at the start of the meeting. We are trying to get on that committee and feel we have a right to be on it. Some of our farmers are among those most seriously affected. Despite a letter to the Minister and previous letters to people on the national parks side, we have yet to receive a positive response. I hope this committee, if it is within its remit, might suggest that we should be allowed onto that committee. We believe that so doing would greatly enhance our presence, alongside other farming organisations.
We are looking at the legal issue. The State has unlimited resources at its disposal, which enables it to take on a legal challenge. Our organisation consists of 4,000 farmers. Some people are terrified of court. If the goodwill of the Oireachtas and the Government cannot achieve fairness and address this issue comprehensively, which in fairness is due to these farmers after ten years, then of course legal action is a possibility.
Deputies Brassil and Michael Moynihan, among others, spoke about bureaucratic problems and getting planning permission. A farmer might be complying with health and safety grounds in respect of putting up a fence to keep their cattle in. I am aware of one farmer in mid-Cork who recently applied for a targeted agriculture modernisation scheme, TAMS, grant. He had to carry out an environmental assessment. By the time he had completed it had cost him more than he would have got in the grant. The cost of applying for these schemes is far above what is available in the grants. These are the people who need the grants. A farmer cannot now get a grant to fence his land because of the cost involved. Companies involved in solar schemes and so on have no interest in getting into a legal battle. It is going to cost them and will take their time. They add up the costs and see that it is not worth it. The reason Coillte was able to do it is because it was State land, the company has a lot of it and perhaps it was able to come to an agreement that other farmers would not be in a position to reach.
Deputy Brassil also mentioned the scheme and how far the €25 million might go. We initially believed that we would receive €35 million for these areas. However, that did not materialise.
As for the €25 million, in fairness to the hen harrier project, it has done a very good job in giving out the money. It is running the scheme for a very small margin, which is very welcome. However, the manner in which the rest of the money is being distributed is causing us some concern. The distributor of the scheme is getting 14%, which is quite low. Around €18 million of the €25 million is going towards paying for habitat. However, to get that money, a farm needs to get ten out of ten in its application. Every farmer would have to get ten out of ten to use up that €18 million. That is not going to happen. The farmers in the Burren have been doing this since 2010 but they rarely get ten out of ten. We estimated an average score for farmers of around six. There is room to improve, but-----
Mr. Jason Fitzgerald:
To work out the payment, if one gets six out of ten he or she multiplies by 0.6, and if one gets ten out of ten he or she multiplies by one. I am disappointed by the fact that not enough money is going into the farmers' pockets. A total of 8% of the money, that is, approximately €2 million, plus other money, will go into actions. Farmers have to spend a certain amount of money to qualify for those actions. They have to go out and plant wild bird cover and buy fencing. There are also other aspects to it. From the hen harrier project's point of view, what it is doing is right. I believe that it is right and that the project will make a difference for the hen harrier in these areas. Unfortunately, it is trying to fill a gap that is too big to fill with the amount of money it has. That is the problem. It is doing the best it can but unfortunately, the amount of money it has to distribute is just far too low. It is a new scheme, a European innovation scheme. As it is a results-based scheme, the project must show results to be continued. We are looking for something completely different. Were the Department to put in place a proper scheme with a proper level of funding and were this money to be placed on top of that for those people who really want to enhance the habitat even further, that would be welcome.
It was asked whether €370 per hectare is adequate compensation. It is nowhere near enough when there is nothing else available. I mentioned earlier that it was okay when forestry was available. It would be okay if this agreement was held up and the National Parks and Wildlife Service picked it up. However, it is nowhere near what it needs to be. It needs to be equivalent to forestry in every way if people are to chose this path over forestry. A person with 100 ha of land over a five-year period has €250,000 in forestry premiums. The combined payments in this regard add up to a fraction of that. I am not in a position to answer the question of why Coillte is able to get these grants. All I can say is that farmers are refused point blank. Companies investing in these areas will have nothing to do with them.
I am sure that much of the ground has already been well covered at this stage. I want to add my own concern that landowners feel that this designation has been landed on them and that their lands will become devalued or worthless as a result. From what Mr. Fitzgerald has said, it sounds as though Coillte will be treated differently. I seek clarification as to whether landowners are treated differently, that it is not equal across the board, that farmers are being left behind and that State lands appear to be treated differently. Can Mr. Fitzgerald clarify what is the difference?
We need some type of weapon with which we can go after them. It is not right that landowners would be treated differently. The same rules should apply to farmers, Coillte and so on. As I said, people believe that their land is devalued. I would welcome some clarification on that issue.
Mr. Morris Flynn:
This is my first time before the committee but I have been a member of the group for a long time. I could bore everybody and speak about the volume of paperwork I have collected on this issue down through the years but I do not propose to do so. I am a farmer, predominantly a dairy farmer. This issue has dragged on since the suspension of the hen harrier scheme in April 2010 and the suspension of the forestry scheme in early 2011. There is no other sector that would wait as patiently for their money. It is frustrating that we have to come here today and I hope that we do not have to come here again. I am calling on the powers that be to recognise the pressure that farmers are under and to put this issue to bed once and for all. I can see both sides of the argument. Last year, this designation cost me €150,000. To purchase good quality dairy land which came up for sale I wanted to sell land I had that was suitable for nothing other than forestry but I was not allowed to sell it. For me, that land is almost worthless. I had to finance the purchase of the land I wanted and I am now facing ten years of repayments, plus interest, on that land. Given the fluctuating prices in dairying I could face serious problems meeting those repayments into the future.
That this problem has reached this stage is scandalous. The designation of my land has cost me a huge amount of money. We are farmers of the most vulnerable land in the country and this designation has been placed on us. I accept that this land is important to the protection of the hen harrier. Much has been said about what should or should not be done in regard to the hen harrier but I do not condone that. The hen harrier has been around since my grandfather's time. Farmers and landowners have no problem with the bird. They are delighted to see the birds flying around at their ease and they enjoy seeing them but trust has broken down because of the manner in which the scheme is being rolled out. As I said, we are the owners of the worst land in the country. We are barely making a living from farming and we are being left to carry the burden in terms of any fine that would be imposed on the country. From year to year for the past eight years all we have had is empty promises. I welcome the new schemes, be that GLAS+ or the new hen harrier scheme, but all schemes have their pitfalls and they come nowhere near replacing what was provided for in the original agreement which I received in 2007.
I did not engage with the appeals process because I was happy to allow my land to be designated based on what was contained in the original agreement. Had I known what would happen within 24 months I would never have agreed to it. My land is now worthless. I am not the only one affected. In 2005, a woman in her 70s from the UK came to Ireland and purchased approximately 30 acres adjacent to my land, where she lived for a while before returning to the UK and renting out the property. In 2012, she returned to Ireland to sell her property because she has serious health issues. There are people in the Visitors Gallery today and others around the country who, on medical advice, should no longer be operating machinery and taking care of livestock on a daily basis but they have to carry on because they have no other way of making a living. The property owned by the woman from the UK has been on the market since 2012. When she returned to Ireland and learned that the land had been designated while she was away the bottom fell out of her world. She has received nothing for that land. She found out that I have been involved in the campaign on this issue for many years and she appeared at my door in tears because she needs money to meet her health care needs in the UK to the end of her days. It is soul destroying and unacceptable that anybody should have to do that. As I stated earlier, the carpet was pulled out from my under our feet. We were codded and the manner in which we have been treated is deplorable.
I was recently made aware that under the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights a person's property cannot be interfered with without property dialogue and proper compensation being paid in time. I believe Ireland is the same, which might answer a question asked earlier by a number of members. As stated by Mr. Fitzgerald, up to now people have been afraid to take a case against the State but they now feel they will have no option but to do so if the Government, with the support of Fianna Fáil, does not sort out this problem once and for all. This cannot be allowed to continue any longer. We have discussed every aspect of the issue today. It is time now that it was put to bed once and for all.
Mr. Jason Fitzgerald:
Deputy Moynihan asked why people are being treated differently. Forestry is one of the key issues. The problem is that Coillte had already planted its forestry at the time of the designation. By law, it is required to replant. The view was that to achieve balance in a special protection area, SPA, there would be a 50:50 split between forestry and non-forestry ground. In my presentation I raised the issue of why the National Parks and Wildlife Service had offered so much forestry if it never had any intention of giving of it. The truth is, and the figures show this, the NPWS never had any intention of allowing farmers to plant that amount of ground.
They were hoodwinked.
Wind turbines have been erected alongside their boundary ditches of several members of our organisations, in similar ground to theirs. If such a turbine fell, it would hit the farmer on the head. The development companies dealing with the wind turbines do not listen to private landowners, even during planning or construction stage, because of the bureaucratic issues that would ensue.
Mr. Jason Fitzgerald:
As regards how the issue can be sorted out, if forestry is not part of it there must be a considerable payment or leverage to farmers for the difference between the value of designated and non-designated land of similar type and quality. I have outlined figures indicating a cost of less than €600,000 per year to compensate for the hurt which the committee has heard has been experienced around the country in regard to land values inside and outside designated areas. If the alternative measures are not put in place, a scheme must be put implemented to offer compensation of well in excess of €500 per hectare of designated land. However, if the alternatives are in place, most farmers would be quite happy with an index-linked scheme of €370 per hectare. We would welcome the initiatives by the Hen Harrier Project if they were to be implemented in conjunction with, rather than in substitution for, such a scheme.
It has been mentioned and highlighted by several members that money for all designated areas and not solely hen harrier designated areas should be ring-fenced in the next budget or CAP. This is not acceptable in Connemara, Donegal or anywhere else. We are here to tell our stories. Farmers in other designations have similar stories. A Common Agricultural Policy that is devised or divided in a fair way would start with those who are worst affected. I met a person from another farming organisation who has been to Europe on the issue of deposit payments for the dairy sector. He clearly outlined that farmers in such areas of vast farms with high production would be far happier and better off with a deposit or income volatility scheme whereby they could park certain amounts of money over time. The European Union has allowed them for €30,000 over three years and perhaps that should be extended. Such people may be not interested in schemes that are paid at a low level. Those issues should be considered.
The committee has heard a good outline of the story. I thank members for the opportunity to appear and for their questions. Four of the biggest parties in Dáil Éireann are represented on the committee today. I hope that, having listened to today's contributions, members will be able to come together and devise a conclusive solution such that farmers in designated areas can farm as equals.
I thank Mr. Fitzgerald. We have given the issue a good hearing and I thank him for being here. The solution to the issue probably lies with Europe rather than in this jurisdiction. The next round of CAP could play a very important role in that regard. There is currently much talk of CAP and the consultation in that regard. Mr. Fitzgerald's contribution today will be very important from the point of view of the committee feeding into that process in the future.
We will hear more from officials regarding the recently announced hen harrier programme and we need more detail on its workings. As Mr. Fitzgerald stated, the designation issue and compensation therefor is not confined to hen harrier designated areas but, rather, concerns designated lands across the country, which is a huge issue in terms of CAP in the future.
The legal case that may be pursued was raised by several members. I am not a legal person but Deputy Penrose is and he seemed fairly certain in the points he made in that regard but it is an issue that should be considered into the future, although there are cost implications.
That is a decision for the Irish Farmers with Designated Land, IFDL. I thank the witnesses for appearing before the committee.
I welcome Mr. Colm Hayes, assistant secretary general, and Mr. Ronan O'Flaherty, principal officer, of the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and Mr. Fergal Monaghan of the Hen Harrier Project. I thank them for coming to brief the committee on the recently announced hen harrier programme.
Before we begin, I bring to the witnesses' attention that they are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and continue to so do, 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 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.
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 ask Mr. Hayes to make his opening statement. I apologise for keeping him waiting.
Mr. Colm Hayes:
I thank the committee for the invitation to address it on the hen harrier programme which the Department introduced at the end of last year. This is a new, locally-led project jointly funded by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and the EU under the European Innovation Partnership initiative, which I will explain in more detail later.
The hen harrier is a subject well known to all present. It nests on the ground, and its preferred nesting sites are unimproved and unenclosed open moorland and heath or bog habitats. It also nests in young pre-thicket forestry plantations. In Ireland, its population is estimated to be in the region of 108 to 157 pairs but that, unfortunately, is declining. The species is listed in annex 1 of the birds directive, which means the birds are subject to special conservation measures that, among other things, require member states to designate special protection areas for their conservation. In Ireland, these areas are the Slieve Bloom mountains in counties Laois and Offaly; the Stacks to Mullaghareirk mountains, the west Limerick hills and Mount Eagle in counties Cork, Kerry and Limerick; the Boggerahs or Mullaghanish and Musheramore mountains in County Cork; Slievefelim to the Silvermines in counties Limerick and Tipperary; Slieve Beagh in County Monaghan; and the Slieve Aughty mountains in counties Clare and Galway.
As has been said, some 4,000 landowners have lands that are designated for the protection of the hen harrier, covering an area of 169,000 ha, although only some 57,000 ha of that is agricultural land. It is important to note with reference to the earlier discussion that the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine has no role in the designation of land as areas of conservation or protection, which is entirely a matter for the National Parks and Wildlife Service, NPWS, and its parent Department. The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine is not a party to any bilateral agreement previously entered into between the NPWS and farmers in designated lands. That agreement was referenced but we are not a party to it.
Most of the rest of the designated land is forestry and while the hen harrier can use pre-thicket forests for breeding and foraging, once the canopy closes the forest is of little use and breaks up valuable open habitat. Some 53% of the six SPAs are under forest cover, with significant areas now closed canopy. As part of our current rural development plan, RDP, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine seeks to address a wide range of environmental objectives, involving farmers in different ways and paying for additional actions undertaken and income forgone. The committee will be familiar with most of these, notably GLAS, the organic farming scheme, the Burren programme and, more recently, the locally-led measures. GLAS is the main mechanism for addressing these challenges and conservation of the hen harrier is a priority action under that scheme. Farmers with hen harrier habitat qualified automatically for GLAS under tier 1, with some of the highest per hectare payments as well, at €370 per hectare up to the standard ceiling of €5,000 per annum, with automatic qualification for GLAS Plus as well, should they manage sufficient habitat. GLAS Plus brings potential payment for managing hen harrier habitat up to €7,000 a year.
In the context of the hen harrier, GLAS is all about protecting or creating the right habitat conditions. The main way farmers do that is by managing grassland in a particular way, incorporating the right balance of heather, scrub and rushes and reducing fertiliser inputs. It is not about turning one's back on the land but is about active farming and that is what we pay farmers to do under GLAS, which is important in the context of the earlier discussion on the abandonment of land. The GLAS measure was designed in close co-operation with the National Parks and Wildlife Service, with environmental NGOs like BirdWatch Ireland and with farmer representatives. It has proved hugely successful as regards farmer participation. There are currently 2,674 farmers in GLAS taking the hen harrier action, and this represents nearly 70% of all farmers with hen harrier land. By any standards, this is a remarkable achievement and the scale of this level of co-ordinated intervention could have a real impact on the survival of the bird.
However, in developing the current RDP, the Department wanted to build in the possibility for testing different ways of approaching agri-environmental issues on the ground, including how we might try to help the hen harrier. We wanted to experiment with a more agile model that could be used to test new ways of doing things and, perhaps most important, new ways of engaging farmers and involving them much more directly in developing ideas and solutions. We also wanted to explore the potential of more result-based schemes, where farmers are paid for the result rather than the action; the better the result, the higher the payment. This is an important initiative because we expect future iterations of the EU rural development programme will include a much greater focus on results-based schemes and we envisage learning a lot from these schemes so as to influence the shape of future schemes. Hand in hand with all of this comes greater freedom to farm. In thinking about this, we were obviously influenced strongly by the success of the various Burren schemes over the years, which have also been funded by the Department.
The proposal we put to the EU was the locally-led model. This foresaw a bottom-up response to environmental challenge, involving farmers directly in the process, with flexible schemes and incorporating a results-based approach. This fitted well with the Commission’s own plans for European innovation partnerships, EIPs, which saw a range of actors working together, namely, farmers, NGOs, scientists etc. testing new and innovative approaches to a range of challenges, not just environmental ones.
In developing its proposals, the Department was also very conscious of the report and recommendations which issued from this committee in October 2015. While that report focused largely on the wider question of designation and compensation, in which we have no role, we noted the conclusion of the committee that farmers provide a public good when they work to preserve the hen harrier and that they should be paid for that. We also noted the committee’s concern that farmers be involved directly in the design of any conservation measures, and in particular the ninth recommendation of that report that farmers and farming groups be more involved in the entire process of protecting the hen harrier.
I should have said at the outset that I am joined today by Mr. Fergal Monaghan, project manager of the hen harrier scheme, and Mr. Ronan O'Flaherty, who is head of division in the Department with responsibility for European innovation partnerships.
I am sure Mr. Monaghan can outline his engagement and interaction with farmers and farm organisations in the design of this programme, if members wish.
This is the process out of which the new hen harrier programme has grown. It is a locally-led project, active in all six SPAs. While funded and supported by the Department, it is not a Department scheme as such but a partnership involving many different players. As well as seeking to protect the future of the bird, it explicitly seeks to create a stronger socio-economic outlook for the agricultural communities in those areas and to promote positive relations with those communities, who have managed these sensitive landscapes for many generations.
The new hen harrier programme has been designed by a locally-led project team, headed by Mr. Fergal Monaghan, working in close collaboration with the farmers on the ground in those areas. A total of 31 separate meetings were held during the design process across the six SPAs, with more than 500 farmers attending. The project team also consulted with the IFA, IFDL, the ICMSA, INHFA and the ICSA during the design stage. The first four organisations listed also nominated farms to be included in the development process, supplemented by additional farms identified by the project team.
Three types of payment are included under the new programme. These are a results-based payment, a supporting actions payment and a hen harrier payment. None is an area-based payment and that is one of the innovations. The first is a points-based system in which a farmer gets paid based on the quality of habitat and can work to increase that quality and his or her payment every year. The supporting actions payment is to pay for capital works that will improve both the habitat and the farm. The final one, the hen harrier payment, is not something we have tried previously but effectively is a bonus payment to farmers if a successful breeding roost site or nest site is identified on or near their land or where the outlook for an entire SPA stabilises or improves. Worked examples show that a farmer with 15 ha could earn between €3,000 and €4,000 a year, while a farmer with 40 ha could actually get up to €6,000 or €7,000 a year. This does not include what a farmer may gain under the GLAS scheme, which could amount to an additional €7,000 per year in GLAS Plus cases. Additional supports for farmers in designated areas are provided for in the rural development programme and departmental schemes. They include the areas of natural constraints scheme, with an annual budget of €200 million.
The new programme was launched by the Minister, Deputy Creed, on 8 December and since then the project team has held seven separate information meetings, with a further three meetings scheduled over the next two weeks. These meetings have been very well attended, with more than 100 farmers at some of them. Actual applications are well in excess of what we would have expected at this point, which always is the measure we use to determine the impact and success of a scheme. Little over a month since the programme was launched, we have almost 1,000 validated applications on hand and a further 127 are being processed. New applications are arriving on a daily basis.
We have many other European innovation partnerships, EIPs, in the pipeline now, the vast majority recruited through open calls, and their imagination and innovation will add enormously to our own learning process and will inform the shape of the next RDP from 2020 onwards. However, the hen harrier programme is by far the biggest single project we have under this heading, with by far the largest budget at €25 million.
We will take any questions committee members may have.
I welcome the officials from the Department. We are having a long session here on what is a hugely important issue. A large amount of land is affected across a number of counties.
The Department officials state this scheme is successful because of the number of applicants and that there is general welcome for it among farmers. That is not the case. Farmers are applying for this scheme because it is the only show in town and it is better than no show. That is the way farmers are looking at it. They are applying for scheme but they are not satisfied with it. Farmers feel it does not compensate them for the designation which completely devalued their land. It goes nowhere near doing so. Farmers are applying for the scheme because they might as well try to get some funding for the hardship they have been burdened with.
The officials were kicking to touch as regards the responsibility for designation lying at the National Park and Wildlife Service's door. Whoever determines the designation, as has been said to us already here this evening, if farmers had known what hardship they would endure and the restrictions that would be placed on them, they would have fought vigorously against the designation in 2007. A fairly reasonable scheme was put in place at that stage where farmers could avail of reasonable compensation for the designation but that scheme did not last too long. It was closed very quickly.
It is not fair to discuss GLAS and the hen harrier together. We parked GLAS and put it to one side. GLAS is a scheme that was brought in with environmental requirements attached and it should have nothing to do with the designation of land. We must divorce GLAS completely from this. All farmers in the country can apply for GLAS. I accept that there are top ups on GLAS for those with hen harrier land but we divorced the two schemes from each other.
We want to hear from the Department and we will judge this scheme as follows. The barometer will be that a scheme put in place will restore the value of the land within the designated areas. As has been said, we are talking about 160,000 hectares, 57,000 hectares of which is agricultural. It is a significant amount of land. We heard in the presentations where land for sale in designated areas is not attracting any bids. It has completely devalued.
There are 4,000 farmers who are demanding rightly that we put in place a scheme that will give them proper compensation for the designation and restrictions that are imposed on them. This €25 million goes nowhere near doing that. Whether it is the National Park and Wildlife Service, the Commission or the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, the responsibility is clearly on us. In my view these farmers are being discriminated against. There were court cases talked about here earlier in the day. Before I came into this House, I was involved in farmer politics. In my time, I have never seen a scheme introduced that totally took away the capital value of an asset as this designation did. While this scheme is being applied for by farmers, and any money coming in the door as a result of the designation is welcome to them, it is just not good enough.
At the end of the day, it adds insult to injury to talk about the results where some of the payment is dependent on where the hen harrier nests because the farmer has no control over that. If the farmer is lucky enough that a few of the birds decide to nest on his land, he will get an extra payment. That is just not acceptable.
While this scheme is a start and it is the first time there has been recognition in a number of years of a scheme for hen harrier land, it is far from what is needed. We will have to go back to the drawing board. As I stated, the barometer will be that we have a scheme in place. Whatever the amount per hectare, if some of the restrictions were taken away that would impinge on what the payment per hectare needs to be.
The restriction of this blanket ban on forestry is one of the places to start. The evidence shows that this blanket ban is not good for the hen harrier population. That would be one of the steps to start to restore the value of land. The other will be a proper level of compensation per hectare. That is where we need to start and that is what we need to deliver on. Unfortunately, this scheme will not do that. Measuring the scheme by the amount of farmers who apply for it is something I do not want to hear mentioned again because the hen harrier farmers are applying for this scheme out of desperation, not because they approve of it.
I thank the officials for coming in today and presenting, and for their time and patience as well. We certainly are having a long, but valuable and worthwhile, meeting.
As the officials will have heard from the presentations from the IFDL, farmers are genuinely affected. They have been very badly served by how this has worked out and the demands that have been placed on them by Europe in the designation of their land, which they did not seek, as SPA land.
I seek clarification from the officials on the Department's perspective on the commitments it gave to farmers at the time of the designation. Certainly, it has been clearly laid out to us here today that at the time farmers were promised that they would not be any worse off and that there would be a scheme put in place which would ensure that they were compensated for the restrictions that were placed on their land, and indeed, for the devaluation of their land. That has not come to pass in any way. Ninety per cent of farmers did not qualify for the initial scheme. In the most recent locally-led scheme, 1,000 farmers out of 4,000 qualified. I would like the Department's perspective on why the previous scheme was so restrictive and there is not more of an uptake in the locally-led scheme now as well considering that 4,000 farmers are affected.
The point has been clearly made by the IFDL representatives and by committee members that GLAS, which has a hen harrier aspect to it, is available to non-SPA designated farmers and to farms which do not have any interaction with hen harriers. That does not fulfil the commitments that were made at the time. It does not in any way address the overall difficulty in terms of the impact on the value of the land. That is something which remains to be dealt with and which these farmers have experienced and have no control over, and they are left in an unenviable position as a result.
In relation to the issue of afforestation and the quota that was outlined at the start, and the fact that is no longer allowed, can that be revisited because I believe there is evidence that different forestry at different stages of development can assist and can be land on which the hen harrier can do well?
I ask the Department officials to update us on the success levels to date in the protection or development of the hen harrier. I note there are 120 breeding pairs in the country. Is this working? Given the designations in place, is there an improvement in that regard? That would be interesting to hear.
I return to the main point here today. This came out of the blue to these genuine farmers, who have always farmed this land and whose families have farmed it for many years before them. It is affecting them on a daily basis. It has affected their ability to make their livelihoods.
From a departmental point of view, I ask Mr. Hayes to address my questions. In terms of going forward within CAP, the budget and the continuation of the SPA designation put in place by Europe, can we ensure that harm that has been done to these farmers' livelihoods can be properly addressed?
I thank all the witnesses for coming in today and making their presentations. Reading through them, the issue of GLAS has been well aired.
The reality is that while the majority of farmers in GLAS could earn approximately €5,000 from the Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, the average is €4,000. I expect it is similar for people in the hen harrier situation. The witness also said that nearly 70% of all farmers have come into this scheme. I expect the reason they are in it is there is no option. It is a scheme that is there and away they go. What else are they going to do? It is not a reflection of how great the scheme is.
The impact is geared at the survival of the hen harrier. We also have to look at the survival of the farmer. That is one of the issues that is plainly being brought to bear. The farmer is being put in a secondary position in this regard. It was said farmers could earn between €3,000 and €4,000 in the locally led scheme and that a farmer with more than 40 ha could earn up to €6,000 or €7,000. "Could" and "do" are two different things. I am sure the witness will be able to give us figures on what farmers are getting.
The other issue is in regard to forestry and it is often raised here. Afforestation seen in many places is Sitka spruce and is very dense. There is little undergrowth. It goes up to a certain stage and there is very little wildlife in it because it does not produce anything else and it becomes a complete blanket. Are there options for different types of forestry which would not be as dense and would allow perhaps more accommodation for wildlife, in particular for the hen harrier? Agroforestry is something we have mentioned several times. I understand the Minister is looking at providing grants in respect of that. It will mean that farmers can farm and have forestry on the same land. That would be a better option in many cases. Could options like that be considered?
The witnesses have not said anything to reassure farmers they are going to get a better deal from this. That is what we need to know. Is there something in this for people who have had their land designated? As it stands, I imagine that if a person had gone into his or her local bank manager two years ago before this scheme existed and asked what designated land was worth and asked that question again now, there would probably be very little difference. It would still be considered designated land and therefore the designation has devalued the property. The only way to bring balance back is to have a scheme which clearly does compensate for that designation. This scheme, while it goes some way toward that, does not go near far enough. The only way that can improve is if some of these other measures are looked at in respect of other forms of compensation that farmers can get.
I welcome the officials. I did not get involved in the earlier conversation. I gave priority to people who are from counties affected by this. I am from an area where this is not a major issue. I sat back, listened and learned. I was shocked to hear some of the stories and at the realisation of how big a problem this is with the farmers effected. I was almost equally as shocked at the presentation of what is being offered as part-compensation for this. It is a three-tier payment and it is money, as far as I can read, that a person has to spend to get it.
I would like to know more from the Department about the matrix of inspection or what inspection process will be gone through or how the results-based marking will work. We have had meetings here, almost as long as this one, on inspections in other areas. I would like more detail from the Department as to how these inspections are going to be performed and what matrix will be used to grade the farmer.
On the supporting actions payment, which is for actions taken, again money has to be spent to get the money. I know the whole scheme is probably designated a lot more toward the hen harrier than the farmer, there is probably a necessity for the hen harrier payment. However, that is hit and miss. A person can spend the money and pass the test, be unfortunate enough for the hen harrier to be in the neighbour's field and then get nothing at all.
I am almost as shocked at the description of the scheme as I was at the hardship cases I heard earlier.
I thank the officials for coming in and presenting their case to us. As I do not want to be repetitive, I will ask Mr. Hayes some specific questions and I would appreciate if he could answer them as specifically as he can.
In 2007, the farmers affected were offered in good faith three very clear promises: an adequate compensation scheme, access to afforestation, and a devaluation rebalancing scheme. Very few farmers, perhaps 10%, achieved some level of these three commitments. Ten or 11 years later, 90% of farmers have received nothing. In respect of the scheme announced in December, to what level will each of those three commitments be met to those 90% of farmers? What level of extra funding is needed to deliver on the commitments given in good faith?
That is all these people are asking. It is very simple. They are looking for the commitments that were given in good faith to be honoured. We have a duty to honour them. In each of those three areas, how far will the €25 million committed go towards meeting those commitments and what is needed to compensate them fully?
Mr. Colm Hayes:
On the last point raised by Deputy Brassil and Deputy McConalogue around the honouring of an agreement from 2007, I emphasise again that this Department was not party to any agreement in 2007. That was something, as I understand it, that was related to the designation of the land. It was a bilateral arrangement between the designated farmers and the National Parks and Wildlife Service. I am not going to comment on it because it is not under our responsibility, and therefore I am not in a position to comment on it.
However, our Department's point of view, and the Minister has been very clear on this, is that our rural development programme, which is now €4.5 billion, is about providing a payment which recognises the public good many farmers provide. By public good I mean the environmental good. That is why we have a €1.2 billion GLAS scheme which, as I said, provides payments of up to €7,000 and a guaranteed entry for farmers with a hen harrier action.
We have a €200 million areas of natural constraint, ANC scheme, and the Minister has committed to an additional €25 million in the budget for 2018. Some announcements are to come in due course on the actual allocation of that. Then we come to the locally led schemes and the hen harrier scheme. I respectfully disagree with those who say the two can be divorced because they are not related. In actual fact, when the designated budget under GLAS for farmers with a hen harrier action and this scheme are combined, the total figure is more than €90 million. That is there for farmers with designated land for hen harrier reasons. That is a sizeable sum of money and it will go directly into the pockets of those farmers between now and the end of the lifetime of the rural development programme.
I emphasise as well, as some Deputies and indeed the IFDL have mentioned, the question of what happens under the next CAP and the next rural development programme. The Minister has announced a national consultation phase on the shape of the next Common Agricultural Policy and the next rural development programme. The meetings start as soon as next Monday. The first meeting is in Carlow. It is important, and I reiterate what the Minister has said, that the thinking has started as to what the shape of the next Common Agricultural Policy will be and the next rural development programme.
Interested organisations and individuals, and civic society generally, need to get out there and make their voices heard. There is a process with which to engage. The details of all the meetings are on the Department's website. It is also possible to make written submissions at this stage. We also expect proposals to complement the European Commission's CAP communication at some stage. That too is a very important point for those who are wondering about the shape of discussions after that.
Forestry has come up a lot today. As others have outlined, the protocol put in place in 2007 was not fully utilised. As to whether this was an issue of demand on behalf of those farmers or of other factors, our understanding is certainly that demand was not what it might have been in terms of the quota made available for those years. If one looks at the likes of Mullaghareirk mountains, the combined uptake for 2007 to 2009 barely equalled the quota for one particular year. The discussion on that has moved on and the issue is now very firmly parked within the threat response plan which was mentioned earlier. Discussion with the European Commission is ongoing in this regard, led by the National Parks and Wildlife Service, NPWS. The Minister, Deputy Michael Creed, and the Department have had strong input into that discussion and have made it known that we believe there should be scope for some sort of afforestation within that threat response plan. As I have said, that matter is under discussion at the moment between the NPWS and the European Commission. We await the outcome of that. I understand there will be a public consultation phase when the time comes, so there will be an opportunity for input.
Some questions were raised on operational aspects of the scheme. The Chairman suggested earlier that it might be useful for the committee to hear about those. I might give the floor to Mr. Monaghan as he is project manager.
With the greatest respect to Mr. Hayes, the National Parks and Wildlife Service is an arm of this State. The people in the room and those listening to these proceedings do not differentiate between the National Parks and Wildlife Service and the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. When a commitment is given by an arm of this State they take it in good faith. It is not good enough for an arm of the State to say that someone else gave a commitment rather than itself and as such that it will not bother honouring that commitment. If an arm of the State gives a commitment and another State body takes up responsibility for that area, the second body has equal responsibility in my opinion and, I am sure, in the opinion of everybody else here. I am sorry but I do not buy Mr. Hayes saying his Department did not give the commitment so it will not honour it. We have a collective responsibility to deliver on commitments given in good faith to which people signed up in good faith in the belief they would be compensated. It is only fair of us to honour that commitment regardless of who gave it. If an arm of the State makes a commitment we, as elected representatives, have a responsibility to deliver it.
Without getting bogged down on this point, perhaps the committee could write to the other Department seeking clarification. I am not trying to cut across the witness's area of responsibility, but when a previous committee dealt with this matter in 2015 officials from that Department may have come before it. I am open to question in that regard but I believe that was the case at the time. Perhaps we will have to review that situation or revisit that area.
I would like to supplement what Deputy Brassil has said. The National Parks and Wildlife Service has been referred to on a number of occasions here today. Obviously it had a budget in place in 2007 outside of the Department of Agriculture and Food. Perhaps there is another door which we should be knocking on for these people behind us. If the service did not fulfil its commitments in 2007, the committee should definitely correspond with it, but we should have a representative of the NPWS before the committee because it put in place the designations and it has put in place the restrictions.
Chairman, we should correspond with them. I think we should have a representative from the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht come before the committee. They are putting resignations in place. They have put the restrictions in place. There could be an onus on the Department to put money in place as well for these 4,000 farmers.
I support the point Deputy Brassil made. There have been a few kicks to touch to the National Parks and Wildlife Service, which is under the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. We should invite a representative from that Department to advise on their responsibility to compensate farmers for the designations that have been put in place.
Yes. We will look for clarification from the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. As Deputy Cahill suggested, we will look for the appropriate official who was dealing with it at that time to come before us in due course.
I am conscious that we will have to suspend the sitting because there is a vote in the Dáil. I apologise for that.
Mr. Fergal Monaghan:
I acknowledge what many of the speakers have said this evening about the public good that farmers are delivering. They have been delivering public goods and ecosystem services by maintaining landscapes and supporting biodiversity for centuries. This has not been adequately recognised in the past.
We are setting out to create a framework that recognises the role of farmers in the delivery of ecosystem services and public goods. That covers a wide range of parameters. The role of some of the uplands as carbon sinks has been mentioned. They also have important roles in flood regulation and as scenic assets and have a cultural value. That owes a lot to the efforts of current and past generations of farmers. What we are seeking to do in this programme is to create a mechanism for farmers to access some of the value of these public goods that they are providing to the community. This scheme has to be above and beyond the green low carbon agri-environment scheme, GLAS. It is a results-based scheme. We are operating under the restriction that we cannot make a flat area payment, which creates its own difficulties. GLAS, the rural environment protection scheme, REPS, the agri-environment options scheme, AEOS, and traditional agri-environment schemes made per hectare payments, which were easy to understand.
It was easy for people to appreciate what was on offer. Our approach is different. We pay on the value of the habitats which the farmer is delivering on the farm. We also recognise that the hen harrier is a high-level indicator of the value of those habitats. If we want to deliver benefits for the hen harrier, we have to do it by delivering the prey base and habitats that it requires. If the hen harrier does well, it is because meadow pipits, red grouse, curlews and a host of other upland species are doing well. If they are doing well, it is because the land is being managed by farmers in a manner conducive to their welfare. This programme is not a programme for land abandonment, it is a programme for active farming and for farmers who wish to access a market for public goods, which previously has been closed to them.
In terms of the programme's operation, we held extensive consultation meetings with farmers across the network. We have taken on board some of the issues which were raised at those meetings in the design. An example of that would be the application process itself. The application to the hen harrier programme is a single page form. It is just a name, an address, a herd number and a signature. There is no requirement for a plan or any investment by the farmer to access the programme. We intend to accept approximately 80 farmers per month for at least a year. The first 80 farmers, approximately 7% of the total, were selected earlier this week. Together they farm just over 4,000 ha of special protection area, SPA, land. They were selected from the 566 applications we received in December. The remaining December applicants and the January applicants will go into a pool or master list and a further 80 will be selected from that list later this week. That process will continue for at least a year.
We accept that there is a transaction cost in any programme. The farmer's time, his or her engagement with his or her adviser and the associated fees all have a cost which must be met. We factored that into the design of the programme and the costings for the various components in it. In addition, we have taken a step to reduce the cashflow impact of advisory costs. We have made the application process relatively risk free in the sense that no upfront investment is required by the farmer. The farmer is only required to engage an adviser once he or she has a contract from the hen harrier programme in his or her hand. The farmer engages an adviser to assist him or her with the process of assessing the habitats on his or her farm, which is subject to some seasonal limitations. It will occur in June and July every year and the farmer will be paid in October. To address the cashflow implications of the transaction cost, we have reduced the gap between those costs being incurred and being reimbursed to as a narrow a timeframe as is feasible.
As I said, we are trying to put a value on what the farmer is delivering. This is a results-based scheme. We have just completed the first phase of adviser training. We held two courses, in Athlone and Limerick, and provisional approval has been given to 88 advisers. Their details are up on our website if members would like to inspect them. Those advisers will have to do a further three days of phase 2 training in late May, which gives a total of five days training and a final exam. This is a more detailed course of training than has been required by traditional agri-environment schemes in the past. The reason for that is that the adviser's role in the process is central. The adviser helps the farmer to self-assess the value of the habitats on his or her farm. That value is expressed on a scale of one to ten. The adviser and farmer come to a decision on that score by reference to a score card that we have developed for the principal habitats that are likely to be found.
So there would be criteria such as invasive species, vegetation structure and vegetation diversity. There would be negative factors like burning, dumping or unsustainable practices. Those positive and negative factors together determine the score out of ten that the farmer receives for a particular field. I missed one step in that the project team determines at the beginning of the process the potential points on offer for each field. When the farmer and the adviser assess their lands, that determines the percentage of the available points the farmer earns. If a farmer gets seven out of ten, we are as interested in why they did not get eight as we are in the fact that they got seven because the reason they did not get eight is a pointer to the farmer about what they can do to bring their score up. Certainly during the design phase, I can say that on the vast majority of fields that were visited by the project as part of the design phase, it was feasible to go up at least one score in a single growing season. One of the things that sets this programme apart from schemes like REPS and GLAS is that the payment is not constant. The farmer has the capacity to improve their score and improve their payment.
We can split the supporting actions into two main groups. There are some capital actions that are there to address infrastructural deficits that are on the farm such as water supply, access or fencing that hinder or impede the farmer's ability to manage the land in a manner that would improve their score. The actions are not an end in themselves. The actions are there to increase the farmer's capacity to benefit from the habitat payment. There should be a margin, particularly when the farmer is utilising their own labour, in respect of those actions but they are not an end in themselves. They are there to increase the farmer's capacity to benefit from other parts of the programme.
There was some comment earlier today about the hen harrier payment. The hen harrier payment represents less than 10% of the €25 million. A total of €2 million has been set aside over the course of the programme to finance this payment. This payment is a local recognition of local achievement. I fully accept the comments some people have made, namely, that it is a matter of luck as to whether a hen harrier nests on one's land. It is possible to qualify for this payment in two different ways. One method is if a harrier nests within a kilometre of a farmer's land and the second one is if at an SPA level, the population is stabilising or improving. As part of the programme, we are carrying out an annual monitoring campaign of the hen harrier population in the SPAs. If 2018 was an exact repeat of 2017, four of the six SPAs would qualify on the second component. That would deliver the hen harrier payment to virtually all the farmers in those four SPAs. In the other two SPAs, many of the farmers would qualify on the basis of the nest local roost. This payment is a new approach. It is a small component of the overall programme but its purpose is to put a value on the hen harrier as a species so that when the farmer is on their land, they see the harrier as a resource. Obviously, the harrier has value in itself but the harrier's presence is an indicator of the proper functioning of the rest of the ecosystem.
None of this possible improvement for hen harriers and other biodiversity would be possible without farmers.
It would be a mistake for a programme such as ours to operate solely on the idea that we can benefit hen harriers in isolation from supporting agriculture.
One of the big risks we have is wildfire risk. We see it every year. We had a particularly bad example in Sliabh Beagh in Monaghan in 2017. Wildfire in Sliabh Beagh destroyed two hen harrier nests directly but probably had an even bigger impact by destroying a large part of the hen harrier prey base. During the breeding season the hen harrier preys largely on the meadow pipit, another ground-nesting bird and one particularly vulnerable to wildfire.
Wildfires do not happen by accident. In the past, there has been too much focus on who actually lit the match and not enough focus on why so much fuel is there. If we are to address that issue under this programme we have to bring cattle farming back onto many of these hills. We have to go beyond the idea of a scheme in isolation and see what can be done in terms of developing a conservation grade for beef so that the older animal that has been delivering conservation grazing is not penalised in the market. We are in consultation with some of the meat companies in that regard at the moment. In addition, we are developing bespoke mineral blocks to address the nutrient deficiencies that occur in a diet of upland vegetation. We are doing this because if we are asking farmers to put cattle on the hills to operate the grazing pattern that we believe would improve their scores, we have to ensure that the market for that type of cattle is supportive and that the particular nutrient deficiencies or challenges occurring in that type of farming can be addressed by the farmer. We are taking a far more holistic approach than traditional schemes.
Earlier, one of the speakers asked about planning permission for fencing. The hen harrier programme is more than happy to assist any farmer in a special protection area with screening for appropriate assessment. If a farmer is putting up fencing as part of the programme and he requires planning permission, we will assist him. We have the skills base to do that and we are happy to oblige.
I would ask everyone to accept that it is a different approach. It is about putting value on what farmers are doing and helping farmers to access that value. It is a pilot project. Earlier, reference was made to the fact that we are only going to take approximately 1,100 farmers into the programme and that a little under 4,000 farmers are in special protection areas. Of the 4,000 farmers in SPAs, almost 2,000 have fewer than 10 ha. Another cohort of approximately 1,000 have more than 19 ha. We are dealing with a wide range of farmers in different categories. Within the figure of 1,100 that we expect to take, any farmer with in excess of 19 ha will do well on the selection criteria. If such a farmer applies in good time we would expect him to be able to access the programme. A farmer with a landholding below 19 ha who is in GLAS is already getting €370 per hectare through that programme.
I have some material with me that I would be happy to pass on to the Chairman for distribution to the committee. I am happy to take any questions from anyone on the committee.
I wish to follow up briefly based on the concluding points from Mr. Monaghan. I have looked at the presentation and done some sums. The worked example suggests that a farmer with in the region of 15 ha could get a maximum of up to €4,000 and that a farmer with 40 ha could get a maximum of €7,000. If we do some basic sums, we get an average payment of €5,500. Let us suppose we had 100% take-up from 4,000 farmers, each of whom scored 100% on the assessment. Then the total would come to €22 million. I reckon we are looking at a probable shortfall. Is there a contingency plan? Where will the surplus money go? The scheme cannot reach €25 million with 100% of 100% of 100% in all criteria.
The money is now allocated for the hen harrier scheme. I cannot envisage the cost reaching €25 million when the scheme is completed and when Mr. Monaghan is happy it is successful. Where will the balance go? How will it benefit the hen harrier?
Mr. Fergal Monaghan:
That is a good point. A results-based programme that incentivises farmers to improve the result is very difficult to cost because its genesis is based on the farmer being able to improve his payments. It makes it very challenging for the designers of the programme to forecast the eventual cost. When we were designing the payment system for the scheme in question, we had a choice. We could have put a system in place that accepted 4,000 farmers and consequently paid out at an extremely low rate. If we took that approach, the money would not incentivise the kind of action we need to incentivise. The Burren programme is on its fourth round at this stage. The programme has been successful in increasing its budget in every round. Even through the worst years of the recession, the Burren programme was able to expand. This was because it was able to demonstrate progress. It is our objective to be able to demonstrate progress also. If we had gone in the other direction and paid at rates such as those mentioned earlier, we would have been able to cope with only 300 or 400 farmers and we would have left thousands behind. We have taken the middle ground, which we believe is sustainable with the budget we have. We will not be able to accommodate 4,000 farmers. The programme will close when all the moneys have been notionally allocated to participants in the programme. I expect there to be in the region of 1,100 farmers. We hope that if we can demonstrate progress within that cohort, there will be potential to expand the pilot project.
Mr. Fergal Monaghan:
Yes. The bulk of the 1,100 farmers will be selected based on the proportion of their farms designated and the areas designated. There are approximately 1,000 farmers who have more than 19 ha. I expect that any of them who apply will be within the 1,100. The farmers with fewer than 19 ha, if they are in GLAS, are already receiving €370 per hectare.
The first point is the anomaly in respect of GLAS payments, soil types and hen harrier payments. The thinking on one payment may be contradicting the thinking on the other. If the question on this has been answered already, I will look at the transcript.
With regard to scoring from one to ten, Mr. Monaghan said he would obviously try to advise the farmer on how to achieve a score of eight or nine if he or she is currently achieving a six or seven. I understand the objectivity of the system and the intentions behind it. For the farmer, however, it is a matter of the amount of work involved to achieve an eight or nine. The cost involved in achieving an eight or nine might make the payment negligible. This could be a factor for the farmer. Mr. Monaghan is saying he wants both to coexist. Economically, it could be a drawback for the farmer. If I am wrong, I am open to correction.
Mr. Fergal Monaghan:
The points the Deputy is raising are perfectly valid. A farmer's potential to improve the score on a particular field depends on what is currently depressing his score. A quite common example in this regard is that of self-sowing conifers on peatland. Seeds from pine and spruce trees in commercial forests get blown onto adjacent peatlands and germinate. If this is happening, it results in a negative score. It would depress the farmer's score. Removing the self-sown conifers, many of which are stunted and easily cut with hand tools, and which may even be hand-pulled, would increase the score. In most of the cases I have seen, addressing something such as the removal of self-sown conifers or, perhaps, addressing an invasive-species problem, dumping or inappropriate cutting or stocking regimes would bring the score up at least one point in a single growing season.
Considering the amount of labour, time and effort involved, is trying to achieve a score of six, seven or eight a sustainable way of farming from a lifestyle perspective and, more important, an economic perspective? I understand the rationale behind what Mr. Monaghan is saying but I am considering the practicalities. If I milk eight cows and milk is at 30 cent per litre, I know the return I am going to get. There is a feedback loop in that and if there is profit, I will do what I was doing again. That is the commercial reality. Where a farmer, to score a seven or eight, has to put in a lot of effort to cut conifers, address dumping or address an act of God, such as pine needles blowing in, for example, is it sustainable from a profitability perspective?
Mr. Fergal Monaghan:
As a dairy farmer, the Deputy would be accessing a market for an agricultural commodity. What we are trying to do is create another market for ecosystem services. The position is that the farmer would now be accessing two markets — a market for an agricultural commodity and a market for ecosystem services. The farmer has a decision to make, however, as to what his priorities are in respect of each field. With some fields, his priority might be to manage them for the production of silage, which entails relatively heavy fertiliser use. More than likely, this will result in a very low score. It is an agricultural decision. The farmer will have prioritised an agricultural output over an environmental one. That is fine and it is perfectly acceptable to us. With regard to different fields, however, the farmer might come to a different conclusion and say the best option to get a return on it is to access a market for ecosystem services. That is the farmer's decision.
Mr. Fergal Monaghan:
These lands are very marginal agriculturally but they have enormous potential for delivering on the public good.
We have to turn around this debate to a recognition of the value of the public good that farmers are delivering and how they can increase that value. That will be possible only if we create mechanisms to access some of that value. That is what this project as a pilot is attempting to do.
I take that on board but the other side of the debate is to find the middle ground and the sustainability. What has been articulated today is that they are struggling to find that middle ground. I come to this from the outside but from my understanding the goalposts seem to have shifted. Mr. Monaghan can correct me if I am wrong. Maybe that is because the habitats are shifting. They do shift and change. It is a question of arriving at a symbiosis between them to give certainty for a particular period of time to allow what Mr. Monaghan has described germinate and happen. That could be the kernel of this. It is a question of how to find that middle ground.
Mr. Fergal Monaghan:
We are a pilot project with a set budget and period of time within which to operate. If we can demonstrate progress and the potential for delivery in the Burren programme that farmers have, who knows what is possible in the next rural development programme, RDP. I am heartened by the level of interest we have had, not just in terms of the applications but also the engagement with farmers. A total of 12 development farmers, including three nominated by the Irish Farmers with Designated Land, IFDL, have applied for the programme. Those people are more aware than anyone else of what the programme entails. Some will do very well, some not so well. They have all seen potential value in this approach for their individual set ups.
Mr. Colm Hayes:
I do not have any final words but we are very heartened by the level of participation and expressions of interest to date. We encourage other farmers who have not yet done so to apply and examine this. There are 88 trained advisers and Mr. Monaghan and his project management team are there to work with those participants.
All of this will be very important in informing the discussions on the results-based schemes in the next RDP. We would be very happy to come back at some point in the future to update the committee on the implementation of the programme.
That is an important point and Mr. Monaghan made a point about this being a pilot scheme and the potential for it in the next RDP. That discussion needs to take place now. We look forward to inviting the witnesses back to update us on how the scheme goes during the year.
We will suspend the public meeting now and then go into private session.