Wednesday, 17 December 2014
Topical Issue Debate (Resumed)
Special Protection Areas Designation
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this important issue. I represent the constituency of Cork North-West. It is a rural constituency and I am concerned about the impact that European directives are having on the livelihoods of small land-holders and family owned farms in this area.
Most of the area of western Duhallow was considered a disadvantaged area for many years. It was also part of the CLÁR designated area suffering from huge population decline. Recent EU directives aimed at the protection of the hen harrier and the freshwater pearl mussel will result in a vast area of this region becoming totally non-productive. Any moderate farming, not to mention intensive farming, is impossible. Forestry is not allowed in the area any longer and under the new county development plan wind energy is also to be discouraged. That plan, in order to comply with the EU directives, states that all developments in this area must be put on hold.
If the Government must impose these restrictions to comply with EU regulations, adequate compensation must be paid to the families. For years, it was Government policy to encourage the planting of these lands. Forestry was generating a return of approximately €500 per hectare. Adequate compensation for the restrictions must be comparable with what could be achieved from forestry plantations. There have been suggestions that top-up payment on the green low-carbon agri-environment scheme, GLAS, is being considered. This is a totally inadequate response. These areas must be treated separately. They are unique and require a special scheme to compensate farmers in the designated areas. Compensation should be at least comparable to income that would be achieved from forestry.
Recently, I met a constituent who has 400 acres of this designated hen harrier protected land. He wanted to sell 50 acres to invest in a business, but it was valueless.
I am replying on behalf of the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Heather Humphreys.
The hen harrier and freshwater pearl mussel are endangered species protected under EU nature directives. The objective of the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht is to ensure that these important species are protected while, in parallel, ensuring that the work of farmers and other landowners in managing the habitats which support these species is recognised.
The hen harrier was a major issue in the judgment of the European Court of Justice in 2007 against Ireland in the "birds case" for failure to provide adequate protection for wild birds.
As a result of the judgment, Ireland designated six special protection areas, SPAs, for the conservation of this species. The case remains open, with the continuing possibility of reputational damage and fines being imposed on Ireland if we are not seen to be in compliance with the judgment.
The hen harrier SPAs are at risk due to a number of factors, such as the reclamation of upland open habitats for agriculture, the development of wind farms and the maturing of the large-scale forests planted in upland areas. These activities have a serious impact on the birds' breeding populations. Agricultural reclamation of heath or bog is restricted in these SPAs, as it removes nesting and foraging habitat for the species.
A number of measures were taken to support farmers operating within hen harrier SPA sites under the rural development programme and through a farm plan scheme operated by the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. With the economic crisis, access to the farm plan scheme was closed to new applicants in April 2010. However, under the agri-environment options scheme operated by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, priority access was granted to farmers within protection areas, including hen harrier SPAs. The Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht has been working with the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine to ensure that hen harrier areas are included within the proposed GLAS scheme under the new rural development programme. The draft GLAS programme includes hen harrier SPA actions within tier 1 of the programme, which is designed for priority environmental assets and action, because of the difficulties landowners face in these areas. Farmers within tier 1 will get first priority access to the scheme in the first year and subsequent years.
The Department is working on a threat response plan with other relevant Departments, which is to provide an overall plan to improve the prospects of the hen harrier while bringing clarity to wider issues including afforestation. The fresh water pearl mussel is in serious decline in rivers in Ireland. It, too, is the subject of an EU infringement process. The Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht has recently commenced a project co-funded by the EU, called KerryLIFE which is working closely with farmers and foresters to provide the necessary water quality for the species in two rivers in Kerry. The Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine is working on a targeted output measure under the new rural development programme, which will focus on the pearl mussel in certain priority catchments. Both of these projects will bring income to farmers in rural areas who carry out work beneficial to the pearl mussel.
Two weeks ago, I was in Kerry and met farmers affected by the issues. I listened to them and spoke to the Minister. While she has not been definitive about what she intends to do, we listened to the concerns and I conveyed them to the Minister.
I thank the Minister of State for her reply. While I accept what she said, with all due respect, the GLAS scheme does not provide the necessary compensation for these families. A farm with a hen harrier on it can be farmed to only 0.6 of its capacity, which is not viable. I know a young man in Ballydesmond who has a 100 acre farm and who has invested heavily. He is left with a huge debt and no income. I ask the Minister of State to consider the constitutional implications. The Constitution guarantees the right to private property. There are instances in which this right can be overcome for the common good, such as land requisition for necessary infrastructure. However, under the Constitution this can be achieved only when adequate compensation is paid to the landowners. These designations should be considered in the same context. While it is fine to protect the hen harrier, if we are going to do it we must pay the farmers.
All I can do is reiterate that I understand the Deputy's concerns and I met the smaller farmers. I understand the difficulty they face and how their incomes will be extremely difficult. As I am not the Minister with direct responsibility for it, I have conveyed my concerns to the Minister and will again. This is part of the GLAS scheme, which will prioritise these areas. On the other side of the country, small farmers are contacting me to say they cannot get on the GLAS scheme because other areas are receiving priority. I sometimes liken it to cases in which some people want me to do something on one part of a river while others want me to do something else in another part of the same river. I understand the concerns and I know farming income is on a downward trend. It is a serious issue and we will give it the attention it deserves.