‘Farmers shouldn’t be forced to swap sucklers for Sitka Spruce’

European Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development Phil Hogan has been criticised by independent TD Michael Fitzmaurice regarding recent comments about suckler farmers.

Deputy Fitzmaurice took issue with the commissioner for recently stating that farmers in the west of Ireland “need to be incentivised to switch from sucklers to forestry or biomass production”.

Commissioner Hogan made the comments at the recent Irish Rural Link conference, entitled ‘Climate Change: Opportunities for Rural Communities’.

Stance

However, Fitzmaurice – TD for Roscommon-Galway – believes that the commissioner’s stance will only serve to further decimate rural communities.

Speaking on the matter, Fitzmaurice said: “Farmers in the west of Ireland need to wake up to this policy being pushed by Hogan and the Fine Gael party.

“In my opinion, Fine Gael has been supporting an agenda which is forcing farmers in the west of Ireland away from sucklers.

But does Commissioner Hogan and his colleagues realise that not all land in the west is suitable for forestry or biomass production?

“I have seen first-hand where crops of willow or miscanthsus have not returned anywhere near the expected yield in eastern parts of the country; so how does Fine Gael expect these crops to grow in lesser quality land in the west of Ireland?”

Rural communities

Meanwhile, Fitzmaurice underlined the importance of suckler farmers to their respective communities in western counties.

In 2018, suckler cows were present on approximately 34,000 farms across Connacht as well as counties Donegal, Clare and Kerry – representing almost 52% of the farms where suckler cows were part of the enterprise.

A total of 422,573 suckler cows were distributed across these 34,000 farms, representing nearly half of the total population, according to the TD.

Meanwhile, across the eight counties listed, the average herd size equated to 12 suckler cows per farm.

Continuing, the independent TD added: “Family farms are prominent across the west of Ireland and their survival is imperative for the wider community.

“But if Hogan and his Fine Gael buddies are allowed to continue on their current path, schools, rural businesses and entire communities will be replaced with forests.

“Is this EU policy or is it an agenda being driven solely by Fine Gael? I have argued for a long time that this Government is intent on driving people to live in urban areas by reducing the services available in rural Ireland,” the deputy said.

Forest cover

Continuing, deputy Fitzmaurice said: “Increasing forest and biomass production in the west fits with the theme of closing post offices and Garda stations across rural Ireland.

“The west of Ireland cannot become the carbon sink of Ireland, while farmers in the south are encouraged to expand the size of their dairy herds and farmers in the east are allowed to concentrate on fattening cattle and tillage farming.”

As it stands, the national forest estate is calculated to be 11% of the total land area – equating to approximately 770,000ha. It is estimated that forest cover is at its highest level in over 350 years, according to the latest forestry statistics published by the Department of Agriculture.

During 2018, just over 4,000ha of new forests were established across the country.

Fitzmaurice added: “Counties in the west of Ireland particularly are already carrying their fair share of forestry – while some are well above the national average.

“Take Leitrim and Clare for example; statistics show that 18.9% and 17.2%, respectively, of the total land area in those counties is planted in forestry.

“Commissioner Hogan and this Government need to understand that parts of rural Ireland are not suitable for forestry and biomass production.

By driving the agenda of increased forestry in rural Ireland, this Government will force more and more people to abandon living in rural Ireland in favour of urban areas – further exacerbating the existing housing crisis being experienced there.

“Farmers need to wake up to the policies being pushed by this Fine Gael-led Government.

“It appears as if the Fine Gael and EU-elite are determined to transform the west of Ireland into a theme park for those living in cities such as Dublin to visit as part of a weekend break,” Fitzmaurice concluded.

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