‘Collective commonage land to receive more payments in new RDP’

Future agri-environmental schemes offer the opportunity for claimants with commonage land to receive slightly higher payments than a non-commonage farmer where the land is collectively managed.

This is according to Liam Fahey, senior inspector, in the Agri-Environment and Structures Division, Department of Agriculture who was speaking at yesterday’s Teagasc Hill Sheep conference in Bantry, West Cork.

“While not all claimants on the commonage would have to be signed up to the collective management plan, it is proposed a baseline of in the region of 60 to 70 per cent participation would be reasonable,” he explained.

While details on a new agri-environmental scheme within the next Rural Development Plan (RDP) has yet to be finalised, higher payments for commonage land managed with a collective management plan offers an opportunity for active claimants to increase their criteria on the commonage over and above their individual minimum and maximum levels, he added.

The Agriculture Department official also spoke on this history of REPS and AEOS.

He explained: “REPS was introduced in 1994 and at its peak in 2007, there were 60,000 farmers in REPS. When REPS 4 closed in 2009; there were approximately 30,000 farmers in the scheme. A total of 1,000 of these farmers completed their five-year contract at the end of 2012 with a further 12,000 completing their contracts in 2013.

“The vast majority of the remaining 17,000 farmers will have completed their REPS contract by the end of 2014. The average REPS payment in 2013 was €5,400 In terms of AEOS, there are approximately 20,000 farmers across AEOS 1, 2 and 3. The AEOS 1 scheme started in September 2010, with AEOS 2 commencing in September 2011. AEOS 3 commenced in May 2013. The average AEOS payment in 2013 was €3,200.”

Fahey stressed that commonage lands form an important part of the farming enterprises of many farmers, particularly along the west coast.

“They also form an important part of the local environment from the point of view of bio-diversity, wildlife, amenities and economic returns, for example tourism.”

He added that there is a substantial risk of land abandonment as under-grazing become more of a problem.

“Under-grazing leads to an increase in ineligible land under direct aid and agri-environment schemes and leads to risk of financial corrections being imposed by the EU Commission. It is vital, therefore, to maintain the commonages in Good Agricultural and Environmental Condition (GAEC), or where there is under- grazing, to return the habitat to GAEC.”

In terms of commonage shareholders, he said the farming of commonages lands has a long tradition in Ireland.

It is by its very nature a complex area, the Agriculture Department official conceded.

“In the vast majority of cases, however, commonage shareholders work well together on a co- operative basis. Each year approximately 4.7 million hectares of eligible land is declared by applicants under the Direct Aid and Agri-Environment Schemes. Of that area, in excess of 330,000 hectares of commonage lands are declared – representing seven of the total area declared. In 2012, almost 15,000 applicants declared commonage lands – equivalent to 11 per cent of scheme applicants.”

He also cautioned that the experience to-date since the Single Farm Payment was introduced in 2005 is that there is a growing problem of commonage land being abandoned by farmers. “This is not good for the environment, as these areas lose the specific characteristics as natural habitats for flora and fauna.”

In addition, he noted that the creeping 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.

“There was also a need to replace the now outdated and no longer valid Commonage Grazing De-stocking Plans, which were drawn up in the late 1990s to deal with the then over-grazing problem arising from the level of sheep maintained on the hills to maximise farmers’ payments under the coupled Ewe Premium Scheme. While over- grazing is still an issue in some known areas, the main problem facing us is the under-grazing of commonages.”

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