The newly-formed farm organisation – Irish Natura and Hill Farmers Association (INHFA) – has taken the Minister for Agriculture to task on land eligibility inspections.

The group has issued an open letter to Minister Coveney expressing its extreme dissatisfaction at the method and manner that the Department of Agriculture is carrying out eligibility inspections on marginal and commonage land.

The group says that move is supported by a number of other organisations

The INHFA says Department officials have carried out land eligibility inspections on hills and marginal land that are clearly eligible under GAEC and in favorable conservation status but in the eyes of the officials had an insufficient farming activity present on the date of inspection.

It says these inspections took place in the period when those farmers were obliged to have cattle off the hills from November to March under their REPs and AEOS plans which was informed by their commonage framework plans.

According to the group this means is that farmers who carry out their responsibilities under their various contracts specified by the Department of Agriculture now face a penalty by the same Department in the form of land being taken out for eligibility after having carried out those contracts as were laid down for them.

The INHFA says the implication of these departmental decisions is that farmers reference areas are being reduced in many cases up to 60% and in certain land parcels up to 100%.

It says this means that the farmers must submit in 2015 the new reduced land area for their Basic Payment, GLAS and ANC schemes.

According to INHFA this in many cases will lead to the treat of land abandonment and as a result will decimate rural farming communities as well as eliminating the very important role farmer’s play in maintaining biodiversity in those habitats for the public good.

INHFA also says if this is to be the template for ongoing inspections then it calls into question how farmers and their planners on marginal land approach filling out their area aid applications by May 2015.

It says subsequent inspections on those farms based on this criteria could find them facing 100% penalties across all payments as has already happened on a large number of farms. Dear Minister,
We, the undersigned, are publishing this open letter, which is supported by a range of other groups, to make you aware of how your Department’s inspectors are interpreting eligibility rules for upland, commonage and Natura land in Ireland.

Contrary to the letter and spirit of both Irish and European policy and legislation, we believe, having spoken to many Natura and hill farmers from many different areas of the country as well as with other groups, that inspections recently carried out by your Department have been done in a manner that will have the effect of leading to:

  • a significant loss of biodiversity,
  • affect farm productivity and Ireland’s international green image,
  • threaten widespread land abandonment,
  • lead Ireland into a breach of European Nature Directives,
  • have devastating economic and social impacts on rural communities.

We recently visited a number of commonages that were subjected to substantial reference area reductions. The focus now appears to be on ‘under-utilisation’ by your Department and we understand that plans are currently in place to systematically reduce the eligible area on commonages where evidence of an ‘agricultural activity’ appears to be lacking.

We feel that the current Irish eligibility rules are being interpreted by your Department in a way that is leaving whole swathes of commonage and Natura land being red-lined and ineligible for payments. Far from addressing the threat of land abandonment this solidifies and leads to the inevitable end point of land abandonment contrary to the policy objective. We acknowledge there is a requirement for agricultural activity and all the areas visited have an agricultural activity, not only in the technical sense as defined in Article 4 (1)(c) of Regulation 1307/2013, but in the everyday sense of actually being used for livestock production.

On some of the site visits, we brought along independent experts who unilaterally confirmed that reductions to parcels for “under-utilisation” were not scientifically justified. For example, no regard was given to vegetation condition, structure and diversity as well as due regard to evidence of an ‘agricultural activity’. We are concerned that there is no defined standard for making a determination on the eligibility of marginal lands. The absence of such a standard makes the decision a subjective one without the need to present any supporting evidence. Furthermore, your Department has the option of dealing with genuine eligibility issues through the GAEC process and imposing penalties rather than the draconian route of making disallowances on the utilisable agricultural area. Decisions made on eligibility will, in the vast majority of cases, create a ceiling on eligibility that future management cannot reverse, which also calls into question the whole point of the GLAS commonage measure.

We would remind you that it was not many years ago that the State was held to account for overgrazing of mountain habitats, with the resultant mandatory destocking and severe impacts on farms and farmers in marginal areas. At that time, one of the most frustrating aspects was the initial blanket nature of the destocking – the complete lack of objective criteria; something which had to be addressed later on through the Commonage Framework Plans and still-ongoing discussions.

Evidence from monitoring of commonages in recent years have shown a trajectory of improvement and now is the time to build on this improvement not abandon the extensive agricultural use of these areas on which their biodiversity, landscape character and local communities depend.

What is more worrying is that we now understand that your Department is imminently planning to systematically interpret the eligibility rules in order to further reduce the reference areas on similar lands on a much wider scale than we have seen thus far. It is worth pointing out that the current eligibility issue differs from the findings of the European Commission’s Land Eligibility review of the LPIS database in 2013, which focused on ineligible features and past rules relating to direct payment in the period 2007-2013.

Under Commission Delegated Regulations 639/2014 supplementing regulation 1307/2013 it is quite clear that new rules now pertain to permanent grassland and as a result many of the potential problems identified above can be solved by Ireland utilising article 4(1)(h) of regulation 1307/2013. There is considerable flexibility granted to member states to define appropriate eligibility criteria taking into account established local practices in their region. The Commission has clearly delegated to member states the flexibility to consider eligible permanent grassland which can be grazed and which forms part of established local practices where grasses and other herbaceous forage are traditionally not predominant. This is further clarified in Commission Guidance document DSCG/2014/33 on the Land Parcel Identification System.

Now it seems that it is your Department and Irish-made policy decisions, which is going to deal a hammer blow to hard working, appropriately-stocked hill farmers. What are the clearly defined objective criteria, which your Department will use for the assessment of agricultural activity? If they are not both clear and meaningful, there are bound to perverse decisions on land eligibility. It appears that problems are further compounded by the fact that these inspections are being carried out during times of year (October– May) when low to no stocking of the areas visited were recommended to meet the requirements of current and past agri-environment schemes over the past 15 years (see REPS 4 specification page 142, and AEOS 3 specifications page 40 requiring adherence to conditions laid down in commonage framework plans).

We requested of you in the past, along with other concerned statutory bodies and NGOs, to use the new European permanent grassland rules as set out in article 4(h) of the direct payment Regulations 1307/2014 to appropriately identify land where herbs and grasses are traditionally not predominant in the grazing area, where the use of such land (e.g. dry heaths, wet heaths, blanket bog) forms part of established local practices (ELP). Setting this out clearly and providing descriptions of such land which can be used by any auditor would provide a solution to this perceived problem and the decision to incorporate this rule rests with your Department, not with the European Commission.

Furthermore, the conservation objectives in relation to extensive farmland should be about maintaining the traditional farming practices that have helped the survival of the habitats and species of national and international conservation concern. In this regard, your Department has a clear regulatory obligation to ensure appropriate and sustainable land management of certain habitats and species on commonages within Natura 2000 sites ensuring attainment of favourable conservation status. Decisions to reduce the reference areas of commonage land dramatically alter the ecology and compromise the capacity and requirement for hill farmers to maintain these lands in GAEC.

As a result of the reductions, many Natura and commonage farmers, having in-depth local and historical knowledge of these affected lands, now expect that the areas of wet/dry heath and upland grassland, in particular, will scrub up. This will lead to a range of negative implications for both upland habitats and upland bird communities (including species of high conservation concern such as the globally threatened Curlew, the Annex 1 species Dunlin, Golden Plover and Chough as well as , Meadow pipit, Red Grouse (all of these are Red Listed); also the Amber-listed Hen Harrier, Merlin and Skylark). These upland commonages support important populations of these bird communities for part if not all of their life cycles. Consequently, hill farmers now feel that they will be unable to farm their land in accordance with Statutory Management Requirements (specifically SMR 1: Conservation of Wild Birds and SMR 5: Conservation of Natural Habitats and of Wild Flora and Fauna) as part of Cross Compliance conditions1 and maintain their land in GAEC.

In this context, although it should not be necessary to point out to you, that Article 6(2) of the Habitats Directive places, according to the European Court of Justice, an “obligation of general protection” requiring the avoidance of deterioration and disturbance within SACs and SPAs. Specifically, Article 6(2) states that: “Member States shall take appropriate steps to avoid, in the special areas of conservation, the deterioration as well as disturbance of the species and habitats”. It would also appear that your Department is not aware of the requirement to carry out an Appropriate Assessment (AA)2 (under Article 6(3) and 6(4) of the Habitats Directive) in advance of making decisions likely to have a “significant effect” on the designated sites and in the light, in particular, of the “precautionary principle”. Regulation 27 of the European Communities (Birds and Natural Habitats) Regulations 2011 places an obligation on all Public Authorities to exercise their functions in compliance with, and in a manner that will secure compliance with, the requirements of the Birds and Habitats Directives.

Previous judgements by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) against Ireland in relation to the Birds and Habitats Directives (based on the inappropriate stocking of commonages) should have provided a clear signal to the Irish Government regarding the need for careful and informed decision-making in relation to the management of Irish commonages.

We want to assure you that we do not wish unfarmed land to be supported. Neither do we support the insistence of some Member States and of the European Commission, reflected in the Regulations, that ‘farming’ can be meaningfully defined in some way which does not insist on the production of livestock or crops. Such nonsense threatens the public finance on which the agricultural sector sadly depends. But target support on real farmers means rules which recognise the reality of Irish farming, in all the areas where it occurs.

With so many issues facing rural communities, including an ageing farming population and rural depopulation, we feel that the current interpretation of the eligibility rules by your Department will exacerbate the threat of widespread land abandonment and lead to the inevitable end point of further rural depopulation and abandonment of uplands and areas dominated by Natura 2000 land. Moreover, this will have serious implications for Ireland’s greatest attraction for tourists (the Irish Rural Landscape) and the marketing of Irish food internationally.

In the past, your Department could have complained that some of the definitions in the Regulations were unworkable, and you would have been right to do so. Now the Regulation includes a broad element of flexibility – failure not only to use this discretion but deciding to interpret even the basic provisions in an unrealistic and harsh way is a purely Irish decision; the economic, social and environmental harm which we have no doubt will result will be laid firmly at your door.

  1. DAFM, as the EU accredited Paying Agency, and the Competent Control Authorities, are responsible for ensuring compliance with the standards and requirements defined under the SMRs and GAEC.
  2. An AA is needed when it cannot be concluded that an activity, plan or project will not have a “significant effect” upon a site of European conservation importance. Sufficient information is required in order to determine whether a significant effect is likely or not. In this context, an initial ‘screening’ step should be performed at the earliest possible stage in decision-making.
    Colm O Donnell
    Irish Natura & Hill Farmers Association
    Date : 19/02/2015
    This letter is supported by the following organisations:

Irish Cattle & Sheep Farmers’ Association
Irish Farmers with Designated Land
Birdwatch Ireland
Mountaineering Ireland
Irish Red Grouse Association
Golden Eagle Trust
Irish Red Grouse Conversation Trust
European Forum on Nature Conservation and Pastoralism
National Association of Regional Game Councils
Irish Beekeeping Association
West Cork Community Alliance
Kilchreest-Peterswell Game and Conservation Club
Derrybrien Development Society
Woodford Gun Club
Irish Hawking Club
Irish Breeds Club
Galway Game Hunting Association
Farm Advisory Services Ltd,
The Woodland league
John McDonagh Planner
The Ox Mountain Hill Sheep Development Association