Thursday, 28 January 2016
Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine
168. To ask the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine if he will provide a ewe premium of €20 to encourage the increase in sheep numbers; if he will provide a targeted agricultural environmental scheme for uplands; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [3693/16]
The sheep sector is an important component of our agriculture sector and the third largest farming sector in Ireland with over 34,000 producers. 2015 proved to be another good year for the sheep sector. A combination of higher carcase weight (up 1.9%) and higher factory prices (up 1.5%) meant that output value of the sector increased by over 3%. Total sheepmeat exports increased by an estimated 5% to €230 million between 2014 and 2015. At farm level, prices reached highs not seen in five years and thankfully these strong prices have continued into this year Sheep farmers will continue to benefit under the same wide range of schemes and supports that are available to farmers in other sectors. This includes, inter alia, the Basic Payments Scheme, which itself took into account payments under the former Grassland Sheep Scheme, and various schemes under the Rural Development Programme (RDP) 2014 -2020 that have been designed to support the sheep sector. Many sheep farmers continue to be significant beneficiaries from the Areas of Natural Constraints (ANC) scheme. The ANC Scheme is worth €195 million annually to some 100,000 farmers and in excess of €1.3 billion over the life time of the RDP. The GLAS scheme in the RDP will also benefit sheep farmers, many of whom qualify for priority Tier 1 access to GLAS as a result of their Priority Environmental Assets, which include Natura land and Commonage.
Increased provision has been made for improving efficiency and profitability in sheep production under Knowledge Transfer Groups. It is expected that the sheep Knowledge Transfer Groups will commence in the first quarter of 2016. A range of capital supports for sheep farmers is also available under the TAMS II scheme including grant aided support for sheep housing and both mobile and fixed handling equipment for sheep.
In relation to a further direct payment per ewe, such a coupled payment would generally come from the CAP Pillar 1 direct payments funded by the EU. This would involve cuts in other farm payments as the overall Pillar 1 funding envelope is strictly defined. A nationally-funded payment would raise issues of exchequer funding availability and would also have to pass a strict EU state aid test. Finally, under CAP Pillar 2/RDP, funding is already being provided as outlined already. Any consideration of further funding for the sheep sector under the RDP could only be considered within an overall review of RDP implementation when a full examination is undertaken of the performance of all existing measures and any emerging priorities.
Growth in the sheep and hill farming sector will come from an increase in consumer demand and export market opportunities as well as from improved technical efficiencies. My Department continues to search for new markets in cooperation with Bord Bia, Irish Embassies abroad and the meat industry. Last year Commissioner Hogan set up the Sheepmeat Reflections Group to examine the sheep sector and the support it needs going forward in order to continue to make an important contribution to agricultural output and to fragile economic areas. Ireland is participating fully in the new group and it is hoped that their deliberations will contribute to ensuring the sustainability of the sector into the future.
Turning to the possibility of a targeted agri-environmental scheme for the uplands, the possibility of introducing such a scheme or schemes is being considered as part of the proposed new Locally-Led Measure of my Department , which is being discussed at prese nt with the European Commission. The first of the Locally-Led schemes to be rolled out will be the Burren Programme, for which applications have already been received and work is progressing on other schemes which will be included under the Locally-Led umbrella later in 2016 and 2017. Freshwater pearl mussel catchments, hen harrier habitats and peat uplands have all been identified as candidates for support. Other candidates will emerge from a competitive process which will be announced towards the end of 2016. However, it should be noted that for the most part, the Locally-Led approach provides for relatively small-scale interventions targeting quite specific environmental challenges. A much broader-based approach to supporting effective management of the uplands already exists in the form of the Commonages measure under GLAS, which offers farmers payment of €120 per hectare per annum , with a maximum of €5,000 a year over five years.