Wednesday, 31 January 2018
Topical Issue Debate
Special Protection Areas Designation
Yesterday I attended a briefing in the AV Room by a group of farmers from north west Cork, east Kerry, west Limerick and County Tipperary on the designation of their lands under the hen harrier programme, the lack of compensation for years and the scheme being put in place which they said did not adequately compensate them, following which the issue was discussed with them at a meeting last night of the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine. In 2007 the National Parks and Wildlife Service gave a commitment that any farmer whose lands were designated under the hen harrier programme would receive a payment of €350 per hectare, but this agreement was later broken by the service and the then Department of Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs. In 2015 the then Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Simon Coveney, committed to paying €350 per hectare up to 40 hectares which was equivalent to 100 acres. However, nothing has happened in the intervening years.
Prior to last Christmas, the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Michael Creed, announced the compensation scheme currently in place. For example, for the first 25 acres, or 10 hectares, if awarded the maximum 1,000 points, a farmer is paid €2,000. However, as the average number of points for this category is 600, the payment is €1,200. For the second 25 acres, if awarded the maximum 1,000 points, the payment is €1,500. However, as the average number of points in this category is also 600, the payment is only €900. For the third 25 acres, if awarded the full 1,000 points, a sum of €1 per hectare is payable, which equates to a figure of €1,000. However, one is more likely to receive €600. For the final 25 acres, the payment is supposed to be €750, but the likelihood is that it will be €450. The maximum payment possible is €5,250, but the likelihood is that it will be €3,150 against the promised €14,000 per 100 hectares in 2007 and 2015.
At the meeting of the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine officials from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine said that as the agreement had been broken by the then Department of Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, not the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, it was not a matter for them. A gangster in the Windy City of Chicago would not attempt to do what is being done to honest farmers. What does the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine propose to do about it? Does he propose to continue this blatant robbery of their assets?
I am taking this matter on behalf of the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Michael Creed, who is leading an agri-food trade mission in Turkey.
The hen harrier programme is a new locally-led project funded jointly by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and the European Union under the European innovation partnership initiative. It is not a compensation scheme; rather, it is a pilot project designed to test new ways of managing these landscapes to the best advantage of the bird and the farmers living there. The hen harrier is an open moorland bird of prey. Hen harriers nest on the ground and their preferred nesting sites are unenclosed open moorland and heath or bog habitats. They also nest in young pre-thicket forestry plantations.
The hen harrier is one of our rarest birds. In Ireland the population is estimated to be in the region of 108 to 157 pairs and declining. The species is listed in Annex 1 of the birds directive, which means that these birds are subject to special conservation measures which, among other things. require member states to designate special protection areas, SPAs, for their conservation. Some 4,000 landowners have lands which are designated for the protection of the hen harrier, covering an area of 169,000 hectares. The agricultural area is a lot smaller, at 57,000 hectares.
The Department has no role in the designation of land as areas of conservation or protection. It is entirely a matter for the National Parks and Wildlife Service. As part of the current rural development plan, the Department seeks to address a wide range of environmental objectives, involving farmers in different ways and paying for additional actions undertaken and income forgone. Members will be familiar with most of them, notably GLAS, the organic farming scheme, the Burren programme and, more recently, the locally-led measures. The locally-led model is a bottom-up response to environmental challenges, involving farmers directly in the process, with flexible schemes and incorporating a results-based approach. This fits well with the European Commission's plans for European innovation partnerships, EIPs, which saw a range of actors working together, namely, farmers, NGOs, scientists and so on, in testing new and innovative approaches to a range of challenges, not only environmental ones.
In developing its proposals the Department was very conscious of the report and recommendations issued by the Oireachtas joint committee in 2015. While the report focused largely on the wider question of designation and compensation, it also highlighted the role farmers played in providing a public good when they worked to preserve the hen harrier and that they should be paid for this. It also recommended that farmers and farming groups be more involved in the entire process of protecting the hen harrier. This is the process from which the new hen harrier programme has grown. It is active in all six SPAs, including counties Cork and Kerry. While funded and supported by the Department, it is not a departmental scheme but a partnership involving many players. As well as seeking to protect the future of the bird, it explicitly seeks to create a stronger socioeconomic outlook for the agricultural communities in these areas and promote positive relations with these communities that have managed these sensitive landscapes for generations. The new hen harrier programme has been designed by a locally-led project team which worked in close collaboration with the farmers on the ground in these areas. A total of 31 separate meetings were held during the design process across the six SPAs, with over 500 farmers attending.
I am amazed by the Minister's statement that the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine has no role in the designation of land, yet that Department is supposed to pay compensation to the farmers. The story before was: "Pay as you go; if you don't pay, don't go." The Government should de-designate the lands or else pay the people fair compensation. They were promised €350 per hectare, which would amount to €14,000 for 40 ha, but they will now get €3,150. Al Capone would not have done that at the height of his notoriety.
The Government is trying to hide between two Departments. Officials at the Oireachtas committee last night said they could not be blamed, yet they are part of this structure and Government. They are denying that they have any role in this. At the same time, it is the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine that pays compensation. This could not be more crooked. It is robbery, it is thievery, it is everything one could call it. What is being done to these people is the height of blackguarding. Cork North-West, the constituency of the Minister, Deputy Creed, includes part of the affected area. Ballydesmond and Lyre are in his constituency. Brosna, Knocknagoshel and places on that side are all affected. The people there are honest, good-living people. They have been and are being blackguarded.
I do not blame the hen harrier; no one could blame it. I would like the hen harrier to be protected but not at the expense of people. The affected landowners cannot sell their land; it is worthless. I will give an example of just one case, that of a farmer who inherited a bit of land and paid €22,000 in stamp duty. It was worth €1,000 per acre and there were 400 acres. It is worthless now. I ask for fair play. The Minister should not be blackguarding these people because that is what is being done to them by this Government.
I certainly have not raised any question about good-living farmers across the country, and I do not believe the reply has done so either. There is nobody doubting them. I can only read the reply given to me. I will relay the Deputy's concerns to the Minister.
The project team consulted the IFA, IFDL, ICMSA, INHFA and ICSFA during the design stage. The first four organisations also nominated farms to be included in the development process, supplemented by additional farms identified by the project team. The hen harrier payment is something we have never tried before. It is effectively a bonus payment to farmers if a successful breeding roost site or nest site is identified on or near their land, or where the outlook for an entire SPA stabilises or improves.
Examples show that a farmer with 15 ha could earn between €3,000 and €4,000 per year while a farmer with 40 ha could earn between €6,000 and €7,000 per year. I hope this explains what the new hen harrier programme is about. It is about trying to devise a new way of managing the landscape in these areas, involving farmers at all stages of the process and rewarding them for their work.
As somebody who has not come from a farm and who has only seen a hen harrier in a picture, I can only relay the Deputy's concerns to the Minister. I will certainly bring them to his attention. Perhaps the Minister will speak to the Deputy and to my colleague Deputy Tom Neville, who also has concerns about this. I will pass on the message.