Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine Charlie McConalogue has said that schemes under the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) can “evolve and be strengthened” over the course of a single CAP programme.

The minister was speaking in the Seanad yesterday (Tuesday, October 26), where he answered a question from Senator Erin McGreehan on supports for the sheep sector.

McGreehan has criticised the payment rates under the Sheep Improvement Scheme to begin in 2023 as part of the new CAP. The payment rate is €12/ewe, only a €2 increase on its predecessor scheme in the outgoing CAP.

The minister commented: “If we go back to the previous CAP programme when it was first launched in 2014 there was no sheep programme. This CAP which [we] brought in now [CAP 2023-2027] has a sheep programme plugged in from the start at a rate of €12/ewe.

“The fact that there wasn’t one there at the start but it evolved over the course of CAP shows that schemes can evolve and be strengthened over a CAP programme,” Minister McConalogue said.

He added: “I will certainly be looking to see what capacity I have to further improve the supports for the sheep sector.

The Sheep Improvement Scheme will follow on from the Sheep Welfare Scheme that was in place in the previous CAP.

The minister said: “The Sheep Welfare Scheme has been a popular one among sheep farmers. It was regarded as being straightforward and accessible and practical and very useful in terms of the measures contained in it.”

He added: “Thankfully in the last three to four years we’ve been seeing sheep prices much stronger than they have been in getting recent years. We need them to be like that all the time. And we need to ensure that farmers are getting a fair return.”

McGreehan had questioned the minister on the €12/ewe rate of payment for sheep farmers under the new scheme, compared to payments that will be available for suckler cows.

“If sheep farmers are getting the same support as suckler farmers, it would represent a payment of around €33/ewe rather than the €12/ewe promised,” the senator said.

“The average age of farmers is increasing and is currently at 56 for a sheep farmer. It is labour intensive and the hours are long. It is not an old person’s game. It needs youth in the sector.”

She added: “We really need to acknowledge, protect and support sheep farmers, who are often an afterthought on national policy.”

Minister McConalogue responded: “There is significantly increased payments for farmers now. We still had to make choices and make decisions in terms of how you would allocate that to the sectors most under pressure.

“I did increase the [payment] for sheep. I know sheep farmers would have liked more. But I would say, as we step out over the next number of years, the potential is to look at that year-on-year to see if we can increase it,” the minister added.