Wednesday, 19 November 2014
Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine
76. To ask the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine further to the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine hearing on 4 November 2014 in which a person (details supplied) stated that there was a risk of financial corrections being imposed by the European Commission as a result of commonage under-grazing, the amount of the financial correction measures being imposed by the Commission; when the intention to implement financial correction measures was communicated by the European Commission to the Government; the current number of commonages that are being under-grazed in each county; the methods used by his Department to establish that figure; the specific stocking criteria set down by the Commission in respect of commonages; the method by which this has been communicated to the Irish Government or the legislative basis for same; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [44548/14]
Each year farmers in Ireland benefit from funding of over €1.5 billion under Schemes such as the Single Farm Payment Scheme, the Disadvantaged Areas Scheme, the Agri-Environment Schemes, etc. This comprises the entire net income of many thousands of Irish farmers. Following consultation with the EU Commission, as part of the normal Accounting process, my Department was requested to undertake a complete review of the LPIS database. This on-going review is of major significance as the Commission is seeking to disallow €181m of funding to Ireland relating to payments over the past 5 years; this is currently the subject of an Irish appeal to the EU Conciliation Body. The Department was first made aware of this on 14 May 2014 in a written communication from the EU Commission.
The European Commission has an obligation to ensure that Member States manage and use the EU funding granted to them in accordance with the very restrictive provisions governing the Direct Aid Schemes and general financial provisions. All of the lands, including commonages, declared by farmers must be eligible if these lands benefit from payment under one of more or these Schemes. The threatened disallowance relates to all payments in respect of ineligible areas and not just to payments on ineligible commonage areas.
Under the Terms and Conditions of the Direct Aid Schemes, which includes the Single Payment Scheme, farmers are obliged to declare only eligible land when making their applications, and to exclude ineligible features such as roads, buildings, farmyards, dense scrub, etc. Furthermore, farmers are reminded that they should not declare for payment purposes land, which they are no longer farming. It is not sufficient to simply exclude the ineligible features from the declarations submitted; this is because land, which is no longer being farmed and/or is abandoned should also be excluded.
To ensure the eligibility of lands declared, farmers must maintain lands through normal farming practices such as cropping, cutting hay/silage or grazing by animals with an appropriate stocking rate to control invasive species. In the case of commonage lands farmers must therefore ensure that lands are kept adequately grazed in order to ensure that the commonage retains the area eligible for payment.
Commonage lands form a significant area of the lands declared annually by some 14,936 farmers in Ireland for the purposes of claiming under the Direct Aid Schemes, with approximately 7% of the lands declared nationally being commonage lands.
However, due to reasons such as previous destocking requirements and the age profile of farmers on commonage lands, there is a growing risk of land abandonment on commonages as under-grazing becomes more of a problem. It is, therefore, the case that the increasing ineligibility of these lands under the Single Payment Scheme and other Direct Payment Schemes poses a significant risk to the State in view of the risk of financial corrections being imposed by the European Commission.
In 2015, all farmers will be strongly urged to ensure that all of the land that they declare is eligible and is farmed by them. The entitlements established under the Basic Payment Scheme will be based on the eligible hectares declared in 2015. In order to protect their payments in the subsequent years, farmers should exclude all ineligible areas from their declarations. In that case, the newly established entitlements will be supported by land which is eligible for payment in order to draw down their full payment entitlement in 2015 and subsequent years. This would also reduce the risk of further financial corrections in the future.