The agriculture minister has stated that he is willing to investigate whether or not the sheep sector would meet the criteria required to draw down funding from the Brexit Adjustment Reserve (BAR).

Speaking at the Irish Farmers’ Association’s (IFA) 68th annual general meeting (AGM) last night (Tuesday, January 24), Minister McConalogue stated that he is “certainly open to engaging” with the association on the sector’s eligibility for use of the reserve.

His comments were in response to calls from IFA Sheep chair Kevin Comiskey for better supports, following tense scenes the previous night at a meeting for sheep farmers in Athlone.

“We had a packed house last night, unfortunately a packed house of angry farmers. You didn’t come out well in it minister, there was a lot of anger towards the department,” said Comiskey.

He and IFA president Tim Cullinan pressed the minister on how he will support sheep farmers and what obstacles exist around the BAR. In response, Minister McConalogue said:

“I’m open to exploring that, we can only do something if things stack up in relation to meeting the criteria.

“We have been assessing and exploring options for all sectors and certainly I will explore that more in relation to the sector,” he added.

However, Cullinan said “the clock is ticking” as the money in the reserve must be allocated by the end of this year. “So we’re asking, can you do something for the sheep sector with this?” he said.

Speaking to media at the event, Cullinan said that “the suckler, beef and sheep sectors are low-income sectors as we know, and there is a huge reliance on direct payments from them”.

“It’s going to take more funding. There’s in excess of €1 billion [in the BAR] there and this sector has been impacted by Brexit, no doubt in the world about that,” he added.

The president also stated that Bord Bia has a role to play in addressing the sector’s challenges, which include better marketing of lamb in new and existing markets.

“We need to look at more promotion around lamb, it’s a high-value meat so it’s going to take more promotion and I think Bord Bia has a job to do there, with promotion and obviously looking at more markets as well.”

Teagasc’s assessment of sheep farm incomes showed that net margins last year dropped by 81% to €7/ewe, inclusive of the sheep welfare scheme payment.

The assessment also projected continued high input costs and difficult market conditions into 2023.

Although the payment rate is set to increase to €12/ewe in the new Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) under the Sheep Improvement Scheme, both Comiskey and Cullinan said it is still not viable as inflation and high input costs erode supports.

“This is not sustainable in the vulnerable low-income sheep sector and must be addressed as a matter of urgency,” concluded the president.