‘Wolves in sheep’s clothing’ – hill farmers react to Biodiversity Strategy

The proposals outlined last week in the EU Biodiversity Strategy could potentially undermine farmer incomes, according to the organisation representing hill farmers.

The Irish Natura and Hill Farmers’ Association (INHFA) argued that farmers on hill and lowland farming systems, especially where peat soils predominate, would bare the brunt of this.

Colm O’Donnell, the association’s president, said that the proposals looked favourable on the first read, but that “it is only when you assess the details in conjunction with other strategies, most notably CAP [Common Agricultural Policy] and the Farm to Fork Strategy, that you see how vulnerable these farmers are”.

According to O’Donnell, farmers were being short-changed on payments under special areas of conservation (SAC) and special protection areas (SPA).

“We see public bodies, NGOs [non-government organisations] and others aiming to cash in on this land through increased administration and regulation that encroaches further on landowners’ property rights, and new schemes that provide significant financial reward to everyone bar the farmer,” the INHFA president claimed.

He added: “This is no longer acceptable and it is now time for all those who ‘talk the talk’ on the need to support biodiversity to recognise and properly remunerate the landowners that are delivering on it.”

O’Donnell also argued that, as most land under the Natura 2000 network is privately owned, 80% of the €20 billion funding for the Biodiversity Strategy should go to farmers and landowners.

It is vital to deliver a fair payment towards the burden imposed on landowners with designated lands. There will of course be a further payment required where management practices are required. We have concerns that this €20 billion may only be fairy tale money, as no means of delivering this budget has yet been identified.

Noting the proposal to increase Natura 2000 land to 30%, the farm leader said that existing concerns around land that is currently designated should be addressed first, along with increasing any new EU budget to cater for increases in the area.

O’Donnell also stressed that this should not be used as a means of “targeting peatlands and carbon rich soils”, and that the process should be fair across all farming systems and land types.

The INHFA president noted: “A fair and properly-funded Biodiversity Strategy can have very positive benefits for all EU citizens. However, at farmgate level, past experience has taught us to be wary.

“We are concerned that this will be used to drive other agendas and provide a cash tree for the wolves now dressed in sheep’s clothing,” he concluded.