Hill sheep blues: Highland farmers want €3 million budget boost

“The hill sheep sector is on the ground” – that’s the message from the group representing farmers keeping highland flocks as it makes a call for more funding under the Sheep Welfare Scheme.

The Irish Natura and Hill Farmers Association (INHFA) says there is a €5 million underspend in the scheme. The group’s national president Colm O’Donnell said his members should get the lion’s share, and has proposed an amendment which would cost €3 million and allow his members to fund extra flock welfare measures.

“There’s €25 million allocated in the Programme for Government for the sheep sector. It had kind of become popularly known as the ‘€10 a ewe’. The reason for that was because there’s approximately 2.5 million ewes in the country and if you divide the €25 million it’s a tenner – approximately.

But it’s not an actual per-head payment – it’s a welfare scheme costed on welfare measures suitable for lowland flocks and hill flocks.

But, as O’Donnell points out, not every sheep farmer applied for the scheme, with about a fifth of the breeding ewes in the country not included.

“What we’re saying is that it must be kept within the sheep sector,” O’Donnell said.

The organisation is calling for the scheme to be amended so that hill farmers would be allowed to choose an extra welfare measure from Category B of the original scheme, which includes parasite control, lamb mineral supplementation and scanning.

“The measures are already costed, so it wouldn’t mean a big adjustment to the scheme. We have that costed at approximately €3 million, so out of the €5 million that’s remaining, €3 million would do it,” he said.

“So there would still be extra money left in there for new entrants into the scheme, so it wouldn’t really adversely affect the structure of the scheme.

“If there’s a willingness there, the minister could easily amend the scheme. But the main thrust of it is that the money doesn’t go elsewhere – that it’s kept ring-fenced for the sheep sector. A full spend of the €25 milllion is crucial to keep hill stocks viable. It can be done within budget.”

The association is looking for the extra support in a very challenging business environment.

“There’s no market for what we’re producing – the light hill lamb. There’s no factory quoting; no export market for those light lambs.

We haven’t had that since the collapse of the Mediterranean markets – typically those light hill lambs were exported to the Mediterranean, which at the time was Spain, Portugal and Italy.

“That’s non-existent, so farmers year-on-year just bring out their lambs and sell them in the marts as store lambs. This year I’ve travelled from the top of Donegal down along the western seaboard to all the marts, and the prices are low to say the least. The average for those hill lambs, as store lambs coming out into the mart, is between €30 and €40,” he said.

“The minister should look at his own Teagasc figures, which say hill farmers are losing €3 a ewe. It’s on the ground; the hill sheep sector is on the ground.”