Farmers need to be aware of Trojan Horses

Farmers have seen headlines which say €400/ha for rush removal, €350/ha to extensively graze and not spread fertilizer, €200/ha towards scrub removal, €520/ha for delayed mowing, money for creating ponds, money for deliberate wetting of farmed peatlands. All part of the Draft Prioritised Action Framework document (PAF) that among other things includes the new Wild Atlantic Nature LIFE project announced by the NPWS. Has Christmas come early???

In assessing the PAF document which is a funding assessment tool provided by Government to the EU Commission and in particular the LIFE Project which forms part of it, Brendan Joyce of the Irish Natura & Hill Farmers Association outlined how there are a number of strategies being proposed that has massive implications for farmers on High Nature Farmland.

The LIFE project is he stated “to be delivered over a nine-year period on an area stretching from Donegal to Clare covering a total of 225,552ha of Natura Lands. Of the €20.6m announced for the scheme only €3.2m will be paid to farmers in direct measures. On a very simple calculation this translates to an average payment per/ha of €1.57 –yes one euro and fifty-seven cents and over the nine-year life time of the project.”

With only 15% of the €20.6m LIFE budget going directly to farmers there is a requirement stated Joyce “to examine where is the remaining €16.7m being spent. In this we see over €2 million earmarked for NPWS to purchase land off farmers but that still leaves nearly €15 million over the lifetime of the project. A significant budget that is we believe being set aside for informing legislation and possible actions. But what are we looking at”

Last May the European Union published its Biodiversity Strategy which outlined details to increase the level of SAC and SPA designations and introduce a new designation called Strictly Protected to cover 10% of the EU land base. As a category 1a designation Strictly Protected carries the highest level of protection and where applied will make farming next to impossible.

This designation is continued Joyce “to be targeted at farm land with peat soils. These soils are to be found in the lowlands on drained peatlands and on the farmed blanket bogs predominately on our hills. The latter is the land type covered by the LIFE project with proposed actions around rewetting and reduction in stock numbers, so one can see the jigsaw that is being assembled.”

In relation to farmer uptake of the LIFE Project Joyce outlined how participation will be limited, probably to a tiny minority of select farmers which will clearly increase the payment rates. However, whether it be this LIFE Project or other similar schemes farmers he stated “will need to be cautious and should assess all the risks associated with proposals such as rewetting and stock reduction. So what then are the risks that farmers with these lands should consider?

• Will all lands regardless of what measure is placed upon them remain eligible indefinitely as an agricultural area under the CAP payment process?
• Can lands that are earmarked for protection and fencing off from livestock be used again for livestock grazing when the scheme ends?
• Can agricultural lands that will be deliberately flooded (through proposed rewetting) over the duration of the project be returned to production based agriculture once the scheme is finished?
• Can farmers that have stopped using fertilizer and opted for an extensive grazing system intensify once their payments have ceased?
• Can farmers in the Hen Harrier project who have rewetted lands ever change the agricultural use of that land again,”

Going forward we will, cautioned Joyce “see the possible introduction of more and new designations and a significant change in land use. Through this we need to remember the story of Troy and in much more recent times the introduction of SAC and SPA designations. History has shown how REPS 1 was introduced as the carrot that paved the way to introduce these designations which outlived the management payment available in REPS. This had major negative consequences for farmers as well as on its environmental ambitions. “

In a similar vein Forestry schemes which initially seemed attractive has he added “left many farmers devastated where the price for their timber did not live up to expectation and farmers are obliged to replant their lands at their own costs. Those same lands can never be returned to eligible agricultural area under CAP.”

In concluding he welcomed the call in the PAF document for a budget allocation of €15 million to be paid to farmers for the administration costs associated with the Natura designation. This will provide a starting point to cover some of the costs imposed on farmers through the 39 actions requiring consent such as permission for fencing. This he stated “is something the INHFA have lobbied for and it is good to see the NPWS finally acknowledging the unfair burden imposed on farmers.”