Seanad debates

Tuesday, 15 November 2022

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Environmental Schemes

2:30 pm

Photo of Ned O'SullivanNed O'Sullivan (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, to the House.

Photo of Martin ConwayMartin Conway (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister for coming to the House. I know he is under pressure due to commitments in Dáil Éireann. It shows his commitment to try to come up with a solution to this issue which is a big issue in north Clare. Everyone in farming circles, certainly in County Clare, and in environmental circles understands the huge benefits that the Burren life programme has had in the past ten years and more. We have seen a situation where there has been a contribution in environmental benefits in the region of €40 million and that is in addition to the money that has been put into the pockets of the almost 1,000 farmers who have participated in the programme. We have a situation where the farmers promoted the environment. They promoted green policies, the protection of the flora, fauna and landscape and became ambassadors for the area.For the tourists and bus tours with people from all over the world, the ambassadors or tour guides and the people who tell the story are the farmers who have worked and lived there and derived an income and at the same time maintained what is beautiful and unique about the Burren.

Everybody wants to see a situation where what has been done in the Burren in terms of the environmental commitments is expanded because clearly this is where we want to go. We want to be in a situation where farmers can earn a living from their farms and at the same time protect the environment; they are not mutually exclusive. They do go hand in hand.

In many ways, what Brendan Dunford and his team have proven in the Burren through their work over the years is that they go hand in glove, if it is done properly. Their concern with ACRES in the first instance is that the key decisions were made before meaningful negotiations took place. There are a number of issues. The first is the incentivisation, where the more people did on their farms to protect and promote the environment and to farm in an environmentally-friendly way, the more they earned from it. That is a key principle. That is the incentive.

Second, there was a situation where organic farmers are being particularly penalised. They can derive benefits and incentives after level 8, whereas for ordinary farmers it is after level 4. That is a concern. In addition, with the CAP and caps in place, where is the incentive for farmers to environmentally develop and promote agri-incentives across all of their farms; they will just do it where they are getting paid. Human nature being what it is, why would they?

Another key point is the local involvement of experts who will do a bespoke review of a farm and advise a farmer in a very direct way to get results. It is like boots on the ground. There is no real provision for that in the scheme. That knowledge benefits and is gleaned and gained by the people on the ground engaging with the farmers, coming up with bespoke approaches. That has in the past been fed into the system and has proven to be of great benefit.

This project was nominated by previous Governments for European awards and won. It has been seen as a positive, natural way of marrying environmental concerns and profitable farming where people can live and work on and derive an income from their farm and protect it for future generations and - as I said already - be the ambassadors and the people who promote the landscape millions of people come to our country to see.

I hope that the Minister will get his officials to re-engage and look at the key pillars that the Burren project is concerned about and sit around a table and come up with a solution. These are very reasonable people who want to engage in a positive way because they understand that the Minister is trying to do his best to expand the environmental targets through farming. What has been achieved in the Burren could easily regress if this is not dealt with.

Photo of Charlie McConalogueCharlie McConalogue (Donegal, Fianna Fail)
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I am sure Senator O'Sullivan will join with me in welcoming the Fermoy students here today and their teacher. I hope the students enjoy their day in the Seanad and the Dáil.

I thank Senator Conway for raising this important issue. I have been engaging with Senator Dooley, Oireachtas colleagues and Deputies Crowe and Carey, along with Senator Conway, who have been raising this important issue. We have been discussing, addressing and considering the issues over the last few weeks. I had committed to coming back about a potential meeting with some of the farmers in the Burren project this week. I will be engaging my colleagues this week regarding meeting some of the farmers concerned to discuss the issues which they have raised today.The Burren programme, which will conclude at the end of this year, has been a successful agri-environment climate measure that encompasses results-based habitat management and complementary non-productive capital investment works. The new national agri-environment scheme under the CAP strategic plan 2023–2027, the agri-climate rural environment scheme, ACRES, builds on the learnings and experience of the Burren programme and the Department's successful European innovation partnerships, EIPs. ACRES is a €1.5 billion scheme with two approaches. The first is the co-operation project, CP, which applies in eight mapped zones that are areas of high nature value; hold significant carbon stores; and are home to some of the most pristine waters in the country. The second, ACRES general, is for all other farmers who do not fall within co-operation project zones.

One of the eight CP zones is the Burren, which is expected to see some 1,300 farmers approved to join the scheme, more than four times the number participating in the Burren programme.

It was always the intention to scale up the positive aspects and actions from the EIPs or locally-led schemes, such as the Burren programme, and to mainstream them into large-scale national agri-environment schemes. This will provide a much larger environmental benefit and enable a greater number of farmers to contribute to environmental public good such as biodiversity and water quality. I am pleased to see the outgoing Burren programme team successfully tender and win the right to be the new co-operation project lead under the ACRES scheme, ensuring the transition I mentioned.

Further building on the work of the Burren programme, the ACRES co-operation programme has been designed to deliver significant long-term environmental improvement through the participation of a substantial number of farmers on the most appropriate land. As colleagues will be aware, there are currently some 300 farmers participating in the Burren programme. It is proposed that an additional 1,000 farmers in the Burren zone would participate in ACRES CP, an increase of more than 300%. This increase will benefit a huge number of farm families and the environment in the area, as well as being an economic catalyst and support for the area. With more farm families benefiting, there will be greater opportunities all round. Increasing farmer participation numbers beyond the limited numbers at present in the Burren programme requires a balance to be struck to ensure that as attractive a payment rate as possible is offered while ensuring that as many farmers as possible can join, with the resulting increase in the amount of land providing environmental benefit. As colleagues can see, this will represent a very significant upscaling of participation in the Burren region and will provide a larger cohort of farmers with access to the specialist skills of the CP team. Not only will there be a major increase in the number of farmers participating, there will be a substantial increase in environmental monitoring and assessment in that region.

Under the current Burren programme, a total area of just over 11,000 ha of species-rich grazed habitat is scored under the result-based assessment. By comparison, under ACRES CP, it is estimated that almost 40,000 ha will be scored in the Burren zone. I recognise there are concerns in the Burren area, with several current participants farming extensive areas of high-quality lands. We are working closely with the Burren CP team to develop a bonus structure to incentivise those farmers.

Photo of Martin ConwayMartin Conway (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister for his response. There is no doubt that the ACRES scheme has huge benefits; nobody is disputing that. We are talking about a few hundred farmers who will be negatively impacted. In the overall scale of the financial commitment under ACRES, it is very small. There is a sense of morale, support, recognition and appreciation but ultimately, in these very difficult times, it is down to pounds, shillings and pence. I welcome the Minister's commitment to engaging with the farmers and their representatives this week. I am delighted he has confirmed that he will do that. I believe this can be successfully resolved through negotiation. I welcome the commitment from the Minister that he is going to directly engage with the farmers and the Burren Life programme this week to achieve a resolution. I thank him for coming in and addressing this directly.

Photo of Charlie McConalogueCharlie McConalogue (Donegal, Fianna Fail)
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I thank Senator Conway. It is about striking the balance between increasing the number of participants and ensuring good payments for those who participate. The EIP schemes of which there were a number of over the past few years and of which there will be more in years ahead was very much about piloting new initiatives so that we could learn from them and then incorporate them on a much wider scale. That is what is happening now as regards the Burren EIP and it is also what is happening in case of the hen harrier EIP, for example. They are being brought to a much wider audience, the environmental benefit is being increased and they are being learned from. I know the transition brings challenges and my officials have been engaging with the Burren programme around that transition. I have had many discussions with Senator Dooley, Deputy Crowe, Deputy Carey and Senator Conway on this matter and I had committed that I would come back this week as regards a meeting. I will engage with them to facilitate a meeting for some time next week.