Dáil debates

Wednesday, 29 March 2006

3:00 pm

Jerry Cowley (Mayo, Independent)
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Question 32: To ask the Minister for Agriculture and Food the reason sheep farmers in the Ballycroy, Tiernaur, Bangor and Keenagh areas of County Mayo are being asked to remove stock for six months of the year and to de-stock up to 70% when this will mean the total extinction of their farming livelihood; if her attention has been drawn to the fact that the overwhelming majority of those farmers are already involved in REP schemes and have already heavily destocked in recent times; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [12365/06]

Photo of Mary CoughlanMary Coughlan (Minister, Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs; Minister, Department of Agriculture and Food; Donegal South West, Fianna Fail)
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This situation relates to the implementation of the wild birds directive and as such it is a matter in the first instance for the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. He has designated the Owenduff/Nephin Beg complex, which includes the area in question, under both the wild birds and habitats directives.

The European Commission secured a judgment against Ireland in the European Court of Justice in June 2002. The case, which was focused by the Commission on the Owenduff-Nephin Beg area of County Mayo, was taken under the wild birds directive and was about the extent to which the habitat of the red grouse, an annexed species, was compromised by the overgrazing of sheep on commonage. The Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government was the lead Department in responding to the court proceedings.

Following the judgment against Ireland a reassessment of the commonage took place. This showed that the actions that had been taken to deal with the overgrazing, which involved partial destocking in 2002 under the commonage framework plans, had not been enough to allow the habitat to regenerate. The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government is, therefore, required to take further steps if Ireland is to avoid a large fine.

Implementation of the destocking provisions of the commonage framework plans was capped at 60% when it was first put into effect. It is now clear, however, that destocking recommendations must be implemented in full. This will affect approximately 50% of the area in question, where the destocking requirement in the framework plans is greater than 60%. I understand the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, following consultation with farming representatives, has also advised that for this area to regenerate it will be necessary to have an annual period of total destocking.

The Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government has, I understand, notified the Commission in February of Ireland's intention to implement the full recommended destocking in the commonage framework plans. They have also informed the Commission that they will require farmers to take all sheep off the commonage for a five-month period each year. This will be made up of the months of November and December and the period from mid-February to mid-May.

Many farmers in this area are in REPS. It is a condition of that scheme that they must comply with the framework plans. However, the complete removal of sheep for a five-month period is additional to REPS requirements, and the farmers are entitled to be compensated for it separately by the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. Farmers who are not in REPS may seek compensation, both for the destocking and for the five-month no-grazing period from the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, under the national scheme operated by the National Parks and Wildlife Service.

REPS is a voluntary scheme and will continue to make a positive contribution to specific environmental objectives. It will continue to complement the actions the Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government is taking to deal with this serious situation. It is in the interests of all farmers to ensure that only environmentally sustainable farming practices are carried out on the site. Otherwise there is a real risk that payments which are directly linked to environmental benefits will be brought into question.

Jerry Cowley (Mayo, Independent)
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I thank the Minister for her detailed reply. There are 300 sheep farmers who farm commonage in this area of Mayo. The big problem is there has been a significant lack of information from the State about what is happening. People just came down and made assessments and the farmers had no input at all. The result is these severe measures which will sound the death knell for these farmers. If one takes the sheep off the mountain for so long, will the sheep go up the mountain again? There is at least one farmer who has no lowland whatsoever. What is he to do? Where will he find a place for his sheep? Who will pay for the rent of the land to accommodate them etc., for five or six months?

This is the point on which I seek the Minister's view. Farmers, as she stated, are already involved in good farming practice. Some 60% are in REPS and they have done their best according to the commonage framework plan, which is in place since 2002. There has been nothing for the other 40%. There was supposed to be a national plan which would guide farmers on what to do. The farmers have had no administration whatsoever to allow that 40% farm in any environmental way. This has been a major deficit. What is the Minister's view? Farmers are really paying the price and there has been a significant lack of information about this entire matter.

Photo of Mary CoughlanMary Coughlan (Minister, Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs; Minister, Department of Agriculture and Food; Donegal South West, Fianna Fail)
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There are 135 sheep farmers in the area, 85 of whom participate in REPS and are entitled to measure A, that is, €242 per hectare, which we renegotiated and obtained. With regard to the five-month destocking period, compensation will be made available by the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government through the national parks and wildlife service to address issues of feed and land. Recently, a heated public meeting took place in County Mayo on this matter. My Department's perspective is based on a number of specific issues arising from the commonage framework plan. For example, in estimating the single farm payment, we went back to 1997 and 1998 in recognition of the impact of the framework plan. We have introduced a specific scheme for those who are destocked under the national reserve and I hope that people have applied for that.

Deputy Cowley's main concern seems to be for the farmers who do not participate in REPS. Such farmers can either decide to enter the scheme or look for compensation through the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. That is the only mechanism by which we can address this matter because, at the end of the day, the European Court of Justice has made a judgment against us and we are exposed to incurring daily fines. Over and above that, however, I am concerned that we may have difficulties in proceeding with REPS 4. Compensation for those outside REPS can be made available either by joining the scheme, in which case they will be afforded measure A, or by seeking compensation through the national parks and wildlife service.

As the Deputy is aware, we have introduced a new farm waste management scheme under which grant aid is provided for the housing of sheep. Perhaps that can help farmers who must move their sheep for the five-month period in question.

Jerry Cowley (Mayo, Independent)
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The 60% of farmers who participate in REPS have done their best and have farmed in an environmentally friendly way, so no fault can attach to them. The remaining 40% have no plan whatsoever. As the Minister noted, a heated meeting took place about three weeks ago which was attended by officials from the Departments of Agriculture and Food and the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. However, the national plan was only put in place hours before the meeting whereas it should have been in place in 2002 when the commonage framework plan was introduced. The farmers in question have been mistreated and have suffered from a lack of information. The Commission was informed in February that there would be a five-month destocking period, although I was informed on 31 January that negotiations would be held. It seems the matter is a fait accompli.

Photo of Mary CoughlanMary Coughlan (Minister, Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs; Minister, Department of Agriculture and Food; Donegal South West, Fianna Fail)
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The Commission investigated the matter last June and found that, despite the measures previously introduced, the 60% under the commonage framework plan did not work. On that basis, they went beyond the plan. It may be appropriate for the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and the national parks and wildlife service to hold further discussions with the farmers on resolving the issue of compensation and their concerns. Deputy Carty and I have met a number of these farmers to explain the matter and the aforementioned meeting was held to brief people on the outcome.

Jerry Cowley (Mayo, Independent)
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How could it have worked, given that no plan was put in place for the other 40%? If the Department had acted properly eight years ago, the mountain would be different now.

Photo of Paul KehoePaul Kehoe (Wexford, Fine Gael)
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Deputy Carty will sort it out.