Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees

Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Joint Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine

Climate Change Issues specific to the Agriculture, Food and Marine Sectors: Discussion (Resumed)

3:30 pm

Ms Bridget Murphy:

I am from the Irish Natura and Hill Farmers Association. My colleague, Mr. Joe Condon, will also make a presentation.

The Irish Natura and Hill Farmers Association is a farming organisation representing farmers producing quality livestock on the most demanding terrain and in the most harsh weather conditions on this island. The evidence supporting this is the supplying of tens of thousands of lambs as stores into factories and the setting up of producer groups in targeting this specialist sector through protected geographical indicators, PGI, statuses. We supply of thousands of weanlings to market each year and in doing so support more than 25 livestock mart co-ops and public and private services. We are the bread and butter for our towns and villages, what we earn is spent in the local community. Overall sheep numbers in Ireland have been growing in recent years. The annual census in December 2016 showed that there were 36,000 sheep flocks in Ireland and 3.9 million sheep. Mountain and mountain cross sheep accounted for 44% of this figure. There are two major problems in hill sheep farming. One is economic and the other is environmental.

Global and local factors place us at a time of considerable uncertainty and change, however one thing is clear. Economies and people cannot survive without an environment to support them. Our need, as farmers and rural communities, for economic and social well-being is dependent on the well-being of the environment we inhabit. We understand that ensuring healthy, thriving, connected ecosystems is critical to our survival.

Up on the hills and the marginal lands, we are experiencing the effects of climate change. Our fields are constantly wet, often too wet to bring in hay or silage and too wet to leave the stock out on the land. In certain areas, we housed cattle as early as August last year and are now facing a fodder crisis. Slurry tanks are overflowing and the land is too wet to spread it out. Flood and storm damage are now regular complaints. Dry days for maintenance work on flocks or the land are few and far between. We could go on.

The EPA in its 2016 report, Ireland’s Environment – An Assessment, states that responding effectively to climate change is both urgent and long term. Mitigating greenhouse gas emissions and adapting to reduce vulnerability to the adverse impacts of climate change, while producing quality food to feed a growing global population, are the tasks ahead. It is clear that both our sector and the State have urgent and pressing needs. The job at hand is how we dovetail these needs to benefit all.

Past experience reveals that when the State has EU directive or compliance needs that can only be met by our lands, they meet them at our expense. Most recent examples are the land designations in the form of special areas of conservation, SACs, and special protected areas, SPAs. These designations are designed to help protect Europe’s most valuable and threatened species and habitats - 600 sites over 14% of the country’s land. The State gets the best of Natura sites, and we get a list of 39 actions requiring consent. These actions include the requirement of planning permission for fencing, costing some farmers in excess of €4,000 for engineering fees and Natura impact studies. Should a farmer wish to sell, they have to notify prospective buyers that the land is a designated site and this burden is added to their property folio? The only outcome here is devaluation of property. This situation is unacceptable. We have called for a payment of €150 per hectare per year to be paid to landowners with designated lands, a small price for Europe and the State to pay farmers to curtail their farming enterprises and to help protect these sites.

A few important points should be noted. Our current income - our grants - is still based on livestock. We are rewarded, or not, for stock numbers and land use practices from 20 years ago. Although the basic payment scheme, BPS, does not require stocking densities, the areas of natural constraints, ANC, payments do, as do GLAS payments, if one entered it via commonages. Any destocking or demise of the suckler herd will have a detrimental effect on those vital payments. Going forward will require a fundamental change of values. Our hill and Natura land is no longer worthless, unproductive and marginal. It is of high nature value. It provides many opportunities to meet critical eco-services and market commodities, for example: clean water; clean meat, with a low carbon footprint, reared on the best of mixed diets in a manner that manages grazing in the uplands ecosystems; carbon credits through sequestration of peatlands; low intensity permanent pasture or woodlands; renewable energy solutions; pollinator corridors; and biodiversity habitats among others.

These opportunities belong to the farming sector and they must be paid for. Since the 1990s hill and Natura farmers have worked tirelessly to bring their farmland habitats to a favourable conservation status. Blanket bog peatlands must be sustainably grazed to retain eligibility. It is necessary that we stop playing the farm and environmental agenda against each other. This issue is going to require everyone to work together. It is time to find areas we can build on rather than pursue issues that divide us. We are calling for a table of stakeholders - farmers, local community and business interests, and environmentalists among others - to be independently chaired, to start developing another vision for our rural future.

We would rather take a little time and plant quality forests and agro-forestry with long lasting benefits for all involved than chase after quick money at the expense of the farmer, the land and the rural areas. Other options exist, ones which are better for us, our land, environment and communities. We can also look to neighbours, for example, Scotland and Norway which face the same issues we do. They are already implementing solutions with success.

It is time for the Government and the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine to start talking to farmers and rural communities, not to talk at us. If they need us and our land to meet their needs or the needs of the day, especially issues relating to climate change challenges, food security, renewable energy commitments and carbon sequestration then they should talk to us. They should not decide our future for us, especially when those decisions involve planting 470,000 ha of our country under Sitka spruce by 2050.

With those points guiding us, we submit the following: When examining the needs that determine the afforestation programme it becomes clear that there are other ways to meet those needs. We believe that there are smarter ways to achieve our renewable energy commitments. Solar power is an affordable and instant solution compared to, with luck, a 30-year crop of trees to burn. We recommend that the Government pursues solar farms. Many farmers would be more than willing to mix solar panels and livestock in the same field. Wind farms are also an alternative. However, communities need to be brought on board such projects and to benefit from them.

Trees are being grown to sequester carbon to meet our greenhouse gas, GHG, emission targets. We acknowledge climate change as a side effect of global warming and we understand that we have to do what is needed to fix the problem. That includes planting trees but that does not include planting Sitka spruce, especially on green bogs or peatland. Peatland, wetland, forests and low intensive grassland farming sequester carbon. Peatland and green bog in good condition can sequester four or more times the amount of carbon than spruce. The most effective use of such land is thus to leave it as peat or bog land and pay the farmer for the sequestration services rendered. The better condition the farmer keeps the ecosystem in, the higher the payment.

We call for an end to all monoculture plantations, especially those of the invasive species, Sitka spruce. We call for clear felling to be banned and replaced with continuous cover practices. For the majority of Irish timber exports, the UK is the only viable market and the uncertainty around the outcome of Brexit places considerable strain on this eggs-in-one-basket approach to the wood product sector.