Concerns have been raised of an eventual but inevitable farming exodus along the western coasts and hill areas if supports for drystock farmers aren’t maintained and improved.

Irish Farmers’ Association (IFA) Hill Farming Committee chairman Flor McCarthy voiced these concerns ahead of the expected announcement of Ireland’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) Strategic Plan in the coming weeks.

Speaking to Agriland on the matter, McCarthy said:

“I’d be concerned with what’s happening overall – I’d be very concerned with what way the suckler cow and the ewe is going to go and what’s going to happen to them without supports – real concerns.

“It’s obviously in the hands of the minister now, he is bringing out his strategic plan in September, so there’s a month or two to go.

“I can see that people who have sucklers and sheep are being left with no other option but to reduce their numbers.”

Noting that the scene “looks OK” at the moment with prices up, the hill chairman warned that this won’t be permanent, adding:

“We’d love to think that Brexit hadn’t happened and all these other things in the background that aren’t taking effect yet, but unfortunately these things will come to light over the next 12 months or two years. That’s the real concern I’d have.”

Turning to the CAP payments that have supported farming on poorer quality land and peripheral areas in the past, McCarthy underlined the need for money “being directed” at these and western farmers, claiming:

“Directing all the money at people who own land isn’t the way to go – you have to be able to direct the money at the people who are actively farming. We’d be saying the whole time that we’re trying to support the farmer that is out there doing the work.

“In the hill situation, it’s the man that’s maintaining the hill that is actually putting ewes to the hill and farming the hill that’s making the difference.

“If we decide to support the man who owns the hill, that may not necessarily be the man that’s doing the work. There has to be reward for the people who are actually doing the work because we won’t get young people to come in otherwise.

“Their options, as I see it happening anyway, is they’re going to take the handy money and just leave the hills. It will probably be a slow process but we will see the deterioration of the areas.

“Then again you’d have to ask the question – is that what they want? To have from Donegal to west Cork, to have all the [marginal western coast] land abandoned there long-term? There’s definitely some people there who think that’s the way to go.

“But what can happen in these situations is, like in the national park in Killarney, that could happen on a bigger scale and more regularly in that scenario.”

Pointing to the grasses and vegetation which in dry conditions mean more fuel for gorse and forest fires, the western farmer said:

“I just saw on the news last night that the Dublin mountains are burning – is that the direction we’re heading in all of the mountain regions over the next 10 to 15 years? I can assure you that will happen if there isn’t support on the livestock.

“People ask what is the public good – public good is farming the land. There’s nothing else you can do with the hill.

“You can manage stock on the hill to maintain the hill and stock it at the right levels – manage it for [preventing] invasive species like the rhododendron, which is a major problem.”

On taking such decisions in relation to western farming versus rewilding, McCarthy said: “Every move you make has an effect greater than the move itself. A lot of these things need to be taken into consideration; when you start winding down a system of farming, it is a worry.

“It will happen slowly but numbers of sucklers and sheep will fall – and they won’t be replaced in these regions because people aren’t going to dairying. There’s no other type of farming you can do, so what you’re having is the land is slowly being let go.

“It won’t be let go all in the one bang together but it’s happening – I can see it in my own area around the ring of Kerry. For a man that has farmed in a peripheral area all my life, that’s a concern to me,” he concluded.