Open Letter to Minister Heather Humphrey’s

To Minister Humphrey’s

Following a National Council meeting of the Irish Natura and Hill Famers association it was agreed to issue an open letter to you in your capacity as the Minister with responsibility for Designated (Natura) land which also includes commonages. The purpose of this letter is to highlight both to you and the general public, issues of grave concern regarding the management of Natura 2000 sites and the implications for landowners in relation to cost and burdens associated with these designations. Of particular concern are the 39 actions requiring consent on these lands and the failure by your department through the NPWS to work with farmers in the implementation of the commonage framework plan. All of these issues are impacting adversely on our member’s ability to deliver a return from their farming activities. What we are seeing over the last year is a growing mistrust in relation to how the government appear to be implementing a programme to deal with Ireland’s obligations under the Natura Directives, without any consultation with the landowners and the local communities


In the nineties the EEC had various correspondence with the Irish state where they were not satisfied that Ireland was fulfilling their requirements under Council Directive 79/409/EEC of 2 April and flora;” 1979 (as amended)) and Council Directive 92/43/EEC of 21 May 1992 (as amended by Council Directive 97/62/EC of 27 October 1997, Regulation (EC) No. 1882/2003 of the European Parliament. As a result of non-compliance Ireland found themselves in the European Courts (case reference C-117/00 better known as Owenduff-Nephin Beg Complex special protection area), where the ruling found “Ireland had failed to fulfil its obligations under Article 3 of Council Directive 79/409/EEC of 2 April 1979 on the conservation of wild birds and Article 6(2) of Council Directive 92/43/EEC of 21 May 1992 on the conservation of natural habitats and of wild fauna;”

Stocking Rates

As a reaction to the above pressure and a very real threat of a substantial fine the state committed itself to a number of measures. These included the designating of large areas under SAC, SPA, assessing and creating Commonage Framework Plans for all commonages. Implementing a 30% destocking on all commonages whether they were designated or not as they were deemed to be of a similar type habitat in need of protection and management.

It is our understanding that the NPWS compiled the Commonage Framework Plans and that these plans were to be reviewed every 5 years. The state has an obligation under these commitments to review and report periodically on the status of the habitats and as part of this should have evaluated the effectiveness of the framework plans including stocking regimes so as to deliver best results. The 30% across the board destocking as well as the Commonage Framework Plans were never altered since their introduction until the Commonage Framework Review under-taken by Michael Martyn for the NPWS in 2012. We understand that the Commonage Framework Plans (CFP’s) have yet to be updated since the 2012 review and yet the only state supported conservation strategy for these areas is the Commonage Framework Plans. However many of these plans are now over 16 years old with the field work even older which brings into question the suitability of relying on this information when drafting new Approved Management Plans. What seems even more difficult to accept is that during this time farmers had no means of changing the management of the commonage where there may not have been sufficient stock to maintain a commonage in its optimum condition.

De-stocking as a ‘solution’ to improving habitat conservation

It is our understanding that the State views de-stocking regimes on commonages (and other Natura Lands) as one of it the cornerstone strategies in trying to improve conservation status under the Nature Directives. In many incidences we believe this is a flawed policy that is not working. We also believe the lack of consultation and continuing lack of engagement with the farmers (and land owners) on these habitats is leading to further degradation of the lands. It is simply not good enough to place restrictions on lands without any engagement with the land owners, particularly, where the restrictions are not providing favourable results.

De-stocking in particular has brought our members into direct conflict with the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine in terms of the Basic Payment Scheme conditions around land eligibility. This is something that your Department is well aware of and yet have failed to properly address with the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine.
Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine’s Approach to Designated lands and Commonages
As set out above, the Irish State has, as part of its attempt to implement the Nature Directives, placed designations and restrictions on our member’s lands. These include stocking restrictions. Yet, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine do not have regard to the fact that these lands are restricted when conducting inspections. Indeed when conducting these inspections many of their inspectors are not even aware of the designations and are certainly not in a position to assess the environmental or habitat condition of these lands when conducting these inspections.

It is our view that you must ensure that all state bodies have proper regard to the Nature Directives. However it seems bizarre that on the one hand the Irish State have informed the EU Commission that they are seeking to provide favourable conservation status to these lands, primarily through agricultural activity, while at the same time the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine are conducting inspections on these lands and applying a totally different measure – often resulting in severe penalties on the farmer.

If the state wants to protect these habitats then the agricultural activity that ought to be carried out on the lands must be to provide favourable conservation status with any stock grazing these sites viewed primarily as a management tool. Unfortunately we have seen large tracts of pristine Hen Harrier hunting and breeding grounds, made ineligible for payments by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine because they often considered these lands under grazed. Clearly any of these inspections should firstly have considered the habitat condition and not whether the lands were under grazed or otherwise.

We believe that the NPWS have failed in their role to ensure the custodians of these lands are protected and provided with the supports needed to ensure they are working towards giving these habitats favourable conservation status.

Article 32 EC Regulation No 1307/2013

No doubt your officials will be aware of this article and its importance in relation to ensuring land subject to Natura 2000 regulations remains eligible for basic farm payments. For that reason, it was unfortunate that we as an organisation had to bring this to the attention of the European Commission as we felt that this is something that you and your officials should have led on.
However given that the Irish State included all commonages in agreeing to the commitments under the Birds Cases, we are of the view that all commonages and not just those with Natura 2000 status forms part of the lands Ireland has used in its implementation of the Birds and Habitats Directives

We are somewhat surprised that you, as the minister responsible for Natura Lands has not ensured the farmers of designated and commonage lands have their payments protected while assisting them return favourable conservation status for these high nature value lands.

Article 32 of Regulation (EU) No 1307/2013 creates an exception for “eligible hectares” under the Basic Payments Scheme to include agricultural areas “which gave a right to payments in 2008 under the single payment scheme” but no longer are in ”good agricultural condition” as a result of “implementation of Directive 92/43/EEC, Directive 2000/60/EC and Directive 2009/147/EC; “
In the case of all commonages, measures such as 30% sheep destocking and the Commonage Framework Plans were the tools used to help Ireland comply with its requirements under the Birds and Habitats Directives.

1. Can you ensure that the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine will now consider all lands restricted by the Irish State’s implementation of the Birds and Habitats Directives (i.e. Natura 2000 sites and all commonages) in terms of delivering favourable conservation status?

2. Can you please confirm that you will immediately ensure that all Agricultural inspections and agricultural activity on all designated lands and commonages will be in the context of the Birds and Habitats Directives?

3. Can you confirm that an agricultural inspector; on a ground inspection must first have regard for Article 32 of Regulation (EU) No 1307/2013 before he/she can make a determination on eligibility for Basic Payment purposes?

4. GLAS Commonage Management Plan (CMP) And EU regulations (Birds and Habitats Directives).

Statutory Instrument No. 477 of 2011 section 24 paragraph 9(c) where it states that “A farm plan may constitute or form part of a management agreement for the purposes of these Regulations.”

a. Can you confirm that the GLAS CMP will not be construed as a farm plan or management plan for the purpose of the above Statutory Instrument?
b. Can you confirm that the GLAS CMP will not form part of the management requirements in the above Statutory Instrument that would be required to accompany the formal designation process in these candidate designation sites?
c. Can you confirm if the CMP could become part of the Management agreement from a regulation point of view?
d. If the Commonage Management Plans give’s varying roles to farmers in management terms of the commonage, will these roles cease at the end of the current GLAS plans and if so what will be the mechanism to replace it?
e. If a farmer wishes to take added responsibility within the Management Plan can you confirm that he/she is not signing up for this indefinitely or beyond the life of the GLAS plan?

5. Has your department evaluated the very real risk of having Commonage Strategies formulated by agricultural consultants with very often inadequate ecological training without your department taking ownership of such plan?

6. Can you confirm if the Commonage Management Plan (CMP) is exclusively or primarily a habitat management tool?

7. Do you believe the farmers and the approved advisors (agriculturalists) involved have the suitable academic qualifications for habitat management and assessment as it seems they will now be expected to deliver specific results under these CMP’s?

8. What in the opinion of your Department is International Best Practice to achieve favourable conservation status on a Red Grouse habitat?

At the commencement of this letter we referred to the 39 actions requiring consent for farmers with Designated (Natura) land. These actions we believe are restricting farmers in their ability to manage these sites. Of particular concern are the requirements around fencing which sees farmers needing to apply for planning permission. Apart from the substantial cost involved it encourages an objection (which often leads to possible refusals) from other groups who see it as an opportunity to deliver their own agenda which is often at variance with improving the habitat.

For example has your Department considered the negative ecological effect on a habitat in the following situation: Where a farmer farms along a roadway that has ever increasing traffic volumes to such an extent that the farmer has either got to fence or cease farming and if that farmer cannot afford in the first place the average cost of €6,000 in professional fees to get through a planning process or where he/she does proceed with a planning application but gets refused?

In conclusion the issues raised in this letter are of vital importance to members and we hope as the Minister with responsibility towards protecting these habitats you will see the importance here too. Presently we are arranging a meeting in Brussels this September with DG Env to discuss the concerns outlined and we hope that a meeting with you and your officials can be arranged prior to the Brussels meeting to discuss the concerns outlined and possible solutions.

We await your reply.