Stephen Cadogan: Discrimination added to injustice in hen harrier SPAs

Only one landowner has not suffered major losses of opportunity and income caused by designation of 170,000 hectares for protection of the hen harrier bird.

That is the state-owned Coillte, whose lands in hen harrier Special Protection Areas (SPAs) have hundreds of wind turbines, many of them erected after the lands became designated in 2007.

This has added discrimination to the injustice felt by the 4,000 or so other owners of land designated hen harrier Special Protection Areas (SPAs) in 2008, by the National Parks and Wildlife Service of the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht.

These landowners may sue the state unless they get annual compensation, and restoration of the sale value of their land to pre-designation levels.

Barrister TD Willie Penrose has said their legal case would be impossible for the state to argue against.

But legal action is only “a possibility” says Jason Fitzgerald of the Irish Farmers with Designated Land (IFDL) organisation of about 4,000 members.

He said the State has unlimited resources at its disposal, to take on a legal challenge, and some of their members are “terrified of court”; hence the organisation’s non-legal quest for fairness from the Government after ten years of suffering by members who say they alone are carrying the real cost of designated areas, in the form of hundreds of millions of euro in opportunity costs.

IFDL has welcomed the new hen harrier project, offering €25 million in payments to farmers who take measures to help the endangered bird on their designated lands.

But it will accommodate only about 1,100 farmers.

For those, a farmer with 15 ha could earn €3,000-4,000 a year, a farmer with 40 ha could get up to €7,000 a year.

There is also some GLAS money (up to €7,000 per year) for 2,674 landowners designated for hen harrier protection, and disadvantaged area (ANC) payments for most.

But this is all small money compared to the opportunity costs of SPA designation.

Their lands are devalued to the point that some holdings are being abandoned.

They are not allowed to plant forest.

Meanwhile, a neighbour across the designation boundary could plant 100 ha which would earn him or her €250,000 in forestry premiums over of land over five years.

As a result, suitable forestry land outside designated areas sells for up to €5,500 per acre, whereas designated land of a similar type and quality would make only €800 to €1,200 per acre.

And the farmers say they can no longer borrow against the deeds of their land, because bank managers see no value or opportunity in mature designated areas.

They say their generation is the first of many left without an asset to pass on with pride to the next generation; they no longer have something of value to negotiate with.

Their organisation says most of them would be quite happy if they were getting an index-linked €370 per hectare and if their land value was restored.

If only for the good of the hen harrier, the Government should help these farmers.

Unfortunately, the well- designed new hen harrier programme can only help a minority of them.

The government may be left between a rock and a hard place, having been forced on the one hand by the EU to designate land for bird protection, or pay fines to the EU; but on the other hand, SPA landowners believe they have been deceived and discriminated against by the Government, and are advised their position is strong, if they are forced to go the legal route to restore the value and earning potential of their property.

Farmers don’t give up easily. Three years ago, money was raised by 1,700 farmers for a legal challenge against eligible land cuts to the Single Farm Payments; they now await a hearing date.

Not far behind them may be the hen harrier SPA farmers, with a legal case that is impossible to argue against, according to barrister TD Willie Penrose.

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