Thursday, 27 October 2016
A Programme for a Partnership Government commits to the introduction of a scheme for sheep farmers under the rural development programme with a budget of some €25 million to be provided in budget 2017. The commitment is a clear acknowledgement of the contribution the sheepmeat sector makes to the Irish agri-food sector, generating an output value of €320 million in 2015 and supporting some 35,000 farm families directly as well as providing several thousand jobs indirectly in rural areas.
The new sheep scheme proposed for 2017 will be additional to existing supports available to sheep farmers under the basic payment scheme, GLAS, the areas of natural constraint scheme and TAMS, and will make a vital contribution to ensuring the continuing viability of the sheep sector in Ireland. In designing the scheme, I am aware of the different challenges facing sheep farmers in the different areas of sheep farming carried out in Ireland. I believe this scheme will provide a lasting benefit to sheep farming and demonstrates and acknowledges the contribution sheep farming makes to the agri-food sector in this country.
As regards the specifics of the scheme design and operation, my Department has engaged in extensive consultation with farm organisations and has met with officials of the European Commission to discuss the proposed new scheme in the context of the specific requirements of the rural development programme. The scheme is being proposed as an animal welfare scheme under Article 33 of the rural development regulation and all actions will have to improve animal welfare conditions for flocks within the scheme. The proposed scheme has been submitted as part of Ireland's second amendment to its rural development programme and is currently being considered by the European Commission, along with other proposed amendments to the rural development programme. Subject to a successful outcome to these negotiations, I am hopeful we will be in a position to launch the scheme in early 2017.
The shape of the scheme will ultimately depend on the terms of the Commission approval and I do not want to prejudge the outcome of that process. However, I can indicate that the proposal presented comes under the animal welfare heading in the rural development regulation, and includes activities that can assist farmers in areas such as lameness control, flystrike control, scanning of pregnant ewes, meal feeding of lambs post weaning, mineral supplementation for lambs and ewes and faecal egg counting for detection of worms and other parasites. I will provide other scheme details as soon as my Department has received Commission clearance.
Scheme payments may be made only on the basis of costs incurred or income foregone as a result of the required actions. Those actions must be verifiable and controllable and go beyond normal standards of husbandry practice before they can be considered as an eligible cost incurred by a farmer and must demonstrate a clear benefit to animal welfare.
Additional information not given on the floor of the House.
I am also anxious that such a scheme takes into account the different production systems in the Irish national sheep flock and recognises the different challenges facing both lowland flocks and hill flocks. It is my intention that the scheme’s design will maximise the number of participants and deliver tangible benefits to the sheep sector in terms of its impact on on-farm practices.
We very much welcome the €10 per sheep scheme, which will be important for the sector. There are just under 13,000 sheep farmers, with an average income of just under €16,000 per year. It is a sector where incomes are particularly challenged and where we have to ensure there is support so that flock numbers are kept up. It is important the scheme begins early in 2017 so we can ensure it gets up and running and that the funding actually comes to farmers. The Minister might clarify how early in 2017 he hopes the scheme will be up and running. The other key point is that the costs of administration of the scheme are kept as low and as manageable as possible in order to facilitate farmers.
With regard to the issue of the menus available to farmers, will there be one menu for all types of farms to choose from? For particularly challenged sectors such as the hill farm sector, is it possible they will be able to choose additional options and, therefore, be paid more than the €10 to try to protect sheep numbers in those areas?
To clarify, there are over 35,000 farm families involved in sheep production. Interestingly, they are predominantly but not exclusively concentrated on the western seaboard, with Donegal, Galway and Mayo having the highest concentration of sheep farmers. It is a welcome investment in the western seaboard counties in particular.
There will be a different menu of options reflecting the different management practices of hill sheep farmers and lowland sheep farmers, which is important. When it gets up and running is contingent on when approval comes from the EU. I would like to have the applications issued in early 2017. I acknowledge the highest costs incurred by sheep farmers are in the late spring and early summer, so in an ideal world that is when we would like payments to issue. However, that is subject to receiving applications, cross-compliance checks and so on. I cannot be definitive about that and it may well be later than that when payments are made.
This reflects a significant investment in the industry, which has stood in line long enough. There are other related matters the industry will have to grapple with in regard to electronic tagging which, although not contingent on this scheme, is becoming an issue in respect of market access for our exports. We opened a new export opportunity in Iran recently. I am committed to publishing a consultation paper in that area in order to get the maximum possible consensus on how we might address traceability issues in the sheepmeat sector.
The Minister might elaborate on the menus and whether it will be the one menu for all farmers. There is also the issue of additional payment to hill farmers. Is this something the Minister can consider?
I had previously answered on the latter issue. There is no proposed variation of payments and it will be a flat rate payment for all sheep farmers.
In my reply, I listed the menu of options, which will include activities in areas such as lameness control, flystrike control, scanning of pregnant ewes, meal feeding of lambs post-weaning, mineral supplementation for lambs and ewes and faecal egg counting for detection of worms and other parasites. Some of these will be more practical for hill sheep farmers and some will be more practical for lowland sheep farmers, but that is the menu of options they will have the choice of buying into.