Land eligibility was a key debate at the ICSA Ireland, Irish Cattle and Sheep Farmers Association, agm last night.

Last year the Department of Agriculture under went a review of applications for both single farm payment and disadvantaged area scheme over the past five years. More than 25,000 farmers face penalties ranging from less than €50 to over €10,000 in this review of 900,000 land parcels.

Speaking at the agm, new ICSA president Patrick Kent said many farmers were in a state of shock. “Many farmers have been shocked to receive letters accusing them of over claiming and they have felt the consequences in reduced payments from the department.

“In some cases, there is serious hardship as farmers have seen severe reductions because the area over claimed is greater than three per cent. These farmers are coming under extreme pressure to pay bills, which are higher than usual anyway because of the impact of the fodder crisis.”

He said the problem was particularly acute in upland areas, marginal land and land near watercourses, noting the county of Cork was severely affected.

“But the problem is everywhere. Hardly a week goes by that we don’t get distress calls from farmers who’ve had big red lines drawn through their land, cutting chunks out of their single farm payment.”

The ICSA president said the mapping satellites were picking up rocky parts of fields, or some furze growth, or trees; things that would be commonplace in marginal areas.

“We have also seen cases where large old oak trees are being red-lined and in some cases the red line takes in the shadow cast by the tree.

“Many farmers are also now suffering a penalty on land that they were told was an excellent habitat when they were in REPS.

He continued: “They were forbidden from interfering with the bio-diversity in that land in REPS, now the signal is that the land should be bulldozed or burnt.”

He said the threat of five years’ retrospective penalties was “appalling”.

The ICSA president is now calling for adequate department staff to be put in place to handle all appeals quickly so that farmers know where they stand before submitting single farm applications in May.

“Why should farmers be expected to be able to make the complex adjustments that are now being made by very precise computer mapping technology, when it’s clear that their Teagasc advisors couldn’t do it or didn’t seem to see the potential over claim either…Whatever about Mississippi burning, West Cork will be ablaze.”

More reports from the ICSA Ireland agm to follow