Wednesday, 21 March 2012
Disadvantaged Areas Scheme
This question concerns stocking rates in disadvantaged areas. I am fully satisfied that the proposed changes to the 2012 disadvantaged areas scheme, currently under discussion with the EU Commission, will have a positive environmental impact on the rural landscape in Ireland. The changes are specifically designed to provide tangible environmental benefits. It is clear from the evidence gathered by my Department and other State agencies operating in this field that, while there is some evidence of over-grazing of commonage land in isolated areas in western regions, there is also increasing evidence of under-grazing in other commonages.
In the event that the proposal to increase the minimum stocking density to 0.3 livestock units per forage hectare in respect of 2011 is adopted, following Commission agreement, specific measures will be implemented to grant a derogation to those farmers who did not meet the 0.3 livestock units per forage hectare in 2011 because of the impact of adherence to a lower stocking density required under an agri-environment plan, or where the productivity of the land is such that it is not capable of maintaining two ewes per hectare. These provisions will ensure the proposed changes will not lead to any over-grazing of commonages.
The EU has put its money where its mouth is in trying to prevent over-grazing and soil erosion, particularly in disadvantaged area schemes along the western seaboard and blanket bogs. The Government seems to be going in the opposite direction, however. If one increases stocking density and duration there is a risk that land will be damaged because not all of it is fit for the proposed stocking densities. The Minister has said there will be an appeals process and that no genuine farmers, as he put it, will be turned down. Nonetheless, how many people who qualified under the existing stocking levels and durations will be ineligible under the new guidelines? I have not been able to get an answer to that question.
That is because I do not yet have an exact answer to that question. This is not just about an appeals mechanism. Any farmer who was required to have a lower stocking rate in 2011, because of a commonage framework programme or because they are in an SAC or NHA, than the threshold stocking rate we introduced, will automatically get a derogation. No appeal is required for that. In other words, farmers who are required to have low stocking rates in order to protect the environment are not subject to the proposed changes. It is important that everybody understands that. It is not a case of telling people we are going to cut their disadvantaged area payment because they had a low stocking rate last year, with farmers saying they were required to have it that low. Anyone who is required to have a stocking rate below 0.3 livestock units per forage hectare will automatically maintain their disadvantaged area payments if they were getting them.
It concerns people on other lands who do not have stocking rate restrictions, who had very low stocking rates. There were people who put the bare minimum stock on the land in order to draw down the disadvantaged area payment. In fact, it was the farmers who asked me to increase the stocking rate. It is important to say that we did not make this change lightly. We made the change having spoken to many farmers. Many stocking rates and commonage areas are being re-examined now by my Department and the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. Hopefully, we will see new commonage framework plans being put in place that will recommend an increase in stocking rate levels. There is a lot of evidence to suggest that in much of the country we are under-grazing rather than over-grazing, which is doing as much damage.
The Minister will be well aware that the agri-environment options scheme deals with under-grazing and over-grazing. The Minister has said he is actively considering bringing forward a new AEOS scheme. Some 1,040 farmers in Donegal who are out of REPS 3 do not have any support, so they are crying out for a new AEOS scheme. Can the Minister confirm that he will bring forward such a scheme and, if so, will it be before the May deadline for single farm payments? Will it be at the original level of 5,000, the previous level of 4,000 or is it likely to be reduced?
I will try to be brief. I have said consistently since budget day that we will not be opening an AEOS 3 in the same way as the previous two schemes worked. We do not have the money to do it, and that is the reality. I will try to put together an AEOS scheme which is purely based on giving financial support to farmers who are farming in restrictive conditions because they are in SACs, Natura areas or possibly in commonages also. If a person is farming under restricted conditions due to a land designation, there needs to be some financial recognition of that restriction. I would like to be in a position to put in place a new REPS scheme or a broad AEOS scheme for people coming out of REPS across the country, but we are not currently in a position to do that. The commitment I made is therefore quite a restrictive one. We are maintaining that restriction to SACs or designated areas. We will look at putting a payment in place for farmers operating under those conditions as a recognition of the fact that they are farming within the restrictions of an SAC or commonage framework.