Seanad debates

Wednesday, 27 October 2004

7:00 pm

Photo of John Paul PhelanJohn Paul Phelan (Fine Gael)
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This matter concerns the deer production sector of the agricultural industry. There is concern among deer producers that they are a forgotten group. It is fair to say that during the late 1980s and early 1990s considerable emphasis was put on diversification and on farmers moving from traditional farming into areas such as deer production and other alternative farming practices. Grants were available to deer farmers for fencing and handling facilities, and a considerable number of farmers got involved in deer production. With the reform of the Common Agricultural Policy these farmers feel they are unrepresented and that their voice is not being heard. I appeal to the Minister, given that under the CAP reform proposals a certain percentage will be creamed off the top, particularly in the area of modulation, to ensure that some of that money is directed towards ensuring not just the survival of the deer industry but its growth and improvement. Deer meat has many advantages as a food source and we should be promoting it more than we seem to be doing at present.

The main point that deer producers make is that they were encouraged by the Government in the late 1980s and early 1990s to change their method of farming and then lost their entitlements. Under the CAP reform and the Fischler proposals they have no or considerably reduced entitlements because they have not been involved in the farming practices that gained those entitlements during the reference years. As a result they are disadvantaged. They feel they are being neglected. I agree with them. I hope the Government will use the money available under modulation to ensure this sector continues to prosper.

Photo of Paul BradfordPaul Bradford (Fine Gael)
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I support what Senator John Paul Phelan has said. Given his background, the Cathaoirleach will know that five or six years ago quite a number of people in the north Cork and west Limerick area invested heavily in deer farming, seeing it as an opportunity to stabilise their farming incomes and involve family members in the enterprise. Unfortunately most of them eventually suffered financial losses and departed from the enterprise. A significant number of people in the Border counties, in particular Cavan and Monaghan, also invested in deer farming. There too, matters did not work out tremendously well.

I take on board what the Senator said. We should try to encourage deer farming as a form of alternative farming enterprise from the health perspective of venison as a food and from the point of view of the surplus of other foodstuffs in the European Union. If a significant minority of farmers got involved in enterprises such as deer farming it could become a valuable way of life and a valuable economic contributor to rural Ireland.

To date, the industry has been unplanned and unregulated and has lacked the leadership which was required. At the time that people in the north Cork area became involved in deer farming the Agriculture Commissioner, Mr. Ray MacSharry, took an interest in the industry, as did the former Taoiseach, Mr. Haughey. Unfortunately it did not get off the ground and many people lost money. However, that is no reason not to re-examine the issue.

Senator Phelan has made a positive suggestion and there is an onus on us, from an agricultural perspective, to try to encourage as many people as possible to invest in alternative enterprises. The numbers of people flocking from the land and from full-time farming is alarming. We need to put in place new solutions, be it deer farming or rabbit farming. They are not the answer to everybody's problems, but all of the alternatives have their place in the spectrum and we should encourage them wherever possible.

Photo of John BrowneJohn Browne (Wexford, Fianna Fail)
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I thank Senator John Paul Phelan, ably supported by Senator Bradford, for raising this issue.

The reform of the CAP, which was concluded in Luxembourg last year, was the most fundamental reform since the inception of the policy. It offered a new framework within which the agriculture and food sector could face up to new global challenges. The effect of the reform has yet to be felt across the community, though here in Ireland we are well advanced in the process of changing from the traditional system of farm supports to the single farm payment.

Beginning next year, farmers who were previously constrained by the premium system to retain animals in order to maximise premium uptake will be free to alter their production patterns. The single payment will continue to be available irrespective of the level of production. That results in farmers having the new freedom to alter production. They will make that decision based on the market returns available across all sectors of agriculture production and from within their own general resources of investment and skills. Many of the 300 farmers engaged in deer production in Ireland will have the cushion of the single farm payment and will have the range of choices available to all farmers in how best to invest this decoupled payment.

The deer population in Ireland currently stands at 48,500 animals. This has increased by 10% since 1994. Almost 800 tonnes of venison are produced annually in Ireland for both the domestic and export markets in Denmark, the UK and the US. Fallow deer is exported to Denmark while red deer is supplied to the supermarket chains in Ireland and the UK and also to hotels and restaurants at home and in the US.

I am very much aware that the industry, in common with other sectors, must continuously face up to the pressure of severe competition from larger lower cost producers from abroad. New Zealand-farmed deer and wild deer from Scotland represent the main competition on the export market. Such competitive forces are factors of international trade and their implications are felt across the production chain where costs of production must be constantly scrutinised and kept under control. This is no different from any other form of agricultural production where the returns in the market are critical to future levels of overall investment.

Irish venison is a specialised high-quality product that has established good quality markets at home and abroad. Clearly there are constraints on the industry in terms of productive capacity. However, deer farming is stronger structurally now than it was ten years ago and the average deer enterprise has increased in scale from six to ten hectares while the average breeding herd has risen almost two-fold, from 48 to 88. Over the years Teagasc has provided an advisory service to deer farmers and also supports the Venison Industry Board, which is the main representative body in matters relating to deer farming and the development of markets for venison.

In addition, the Department makes grant aid available to farmers for investment in housing and handling facilities for deer under the alternative enterprises scheme established pursuant to the national development plan. The type of investment eligible for grant aid under this scheme includes housing, feed storage facilities and waste storage facilities. Support is also available for handling facilities as well as water supply.

The Department is currently conducting a review of the alternative enterprises scheme with a view to making proposals as to how the scheme might be made more effective. My officials met with representatives of the Venison Industry Board last August and their views will be taken into account in the completion of the review.

I am strongly of the view that deer farming as an alternative enterprise to the more traditional and established farm enterprise will provide a valuable new outlet for a greater number of farmers who will assess the future direction of their farm enterprise. They will look to future returns from the marketplace and take these into account in assessing the investment needs of their farm and the opportunity and costs that may lie elsewhere. It is clear that not only is the deer sector more structurally sound now than it was ten years ago but the same is true of its financial base. While there may be fewer enterprises today they are larger, more specialised and moving towards quality-assured, high-value product outlets.

I will bring the views of both Senators to the review committee which is currently working on alternatives and strongly present the case.