Inspection regime could lead to ‘land abandonment’

Proposals to target hill and commonage lands for renewed land eligibility inspections have been met with alarm by the Irish Natura and Hill Farmers’ Association (INHFA).

The INHFA has written to the Department of Agriculture seeking ‘proper engagement and clarification’ regarding the management of upland regions and their abundance of unique habitats. The bid was made in a letter addressed to Minister for Agriculture Michael Creed, but was issued to all members of the Oireachtas.

The letter also contained the threat of a formal complaint to the EU Commission under the belief that the state could end up breaching the Birds & Habitats Directives.

According to the INHFA National Chair Vincent Roddy, the organisation believes that changes in the interpretation of EU regulations on land eligibility mean new inspections could deem large sections of land ineligible for payments.

Were this to happen, Roddy said: “We will not just see a significant loss of income to farmers but it will also adversely affect the many Natura 2000 (SAC and SPA) habitats [Special Areas of Conservation; Special Protection Areas].”

According to the INHFA, the new inspections could result in the destruction of habitats. Such an outcome would have a detrimental outcome, resulting in a major loss of biodiversity, and the possibility of widespread land abandonment.

In terms of social and economic impacts, it could adversely affect Ireland’s international ‘green’ image, as well as farm productivity and rural communities in general.

Roddy said: “A considerable amount of hill and commonage lands are designated Natura 2000 habitats or subject to these habitat directives.

Resulting from this, farmers are required to get permission for 39 different actions which farmers on non-Natura sites are not subject to.

Roddy noted that for many farmers, this is compromise enough, without adding anything else. He said: “These requirements have restricted their farming activity and ability to deliver a profit from these lands.

Unfortunately these facts appear to be ignored by the department, which seems intent on penalising farmers through a flawed interpretation of EU directives on eligible land, with no regard to habitat conservation.

“Farmers could now be faced with a dilemma – do they continue to farm within the habitat directives and see their land become ineligible or do they ignore the habitat directives by altering the land composition and vegetation in order to ensure it remains eligible for payments.

“The department has flexibility in how it applies EU regulations and there is enough flexibility in EU regulation 1307 2013 Article 4(1)h to ensure these lands remain eligible for payments.”