Farmers on environmentally sensitive lands along the Shannon estuary are seeking restoration of ‘Farm Plan’ schemes compensating them for restricting their land use.
The restrictions are intended to protect endangered wildlife and plants. The farmers in Galway, Offaly, Roscommon, and Westmeath signed up to 15-year Farm Plans with the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) in 2006, but these plans were stopped in 2012. The disputed area relates to up to 105 NPWS farm plans.
“The bogs were in crisis in 2012, so they pulled our funding and put it into the bogs,” said Galway farmer Charlie Killeen, chair of the Shannon Action Group. “It was envisaged that the farm plans would solve any problems relating to the hen harrier scheme. We’re quite willing to co-operate with any measures that need to be introduced. We’re not spraying on these lands; we’re still farming to the guidelines. We are guardians of the land.”
From 2012, farmers have been invited to instead apply for GLAS and other environmental schemes. Teagasc costed the NPWS plans at €350/ha 12 years ago. Farmers in the Shannon Callow area would get around €200/ha if they signed up to GLAS, while also agreeing to seven actions, some of which this group of farmers also strongly oppose.
“If a farmer needed planning for a fence to comply, the burden would be on his title deeds,” said Mr Killeen. “Because of that, banks wouldn’t accept your land as security for a loan.
“Worst of all, if you’re found to be in breach of any of these rules, you could face six months in jail or fines of up to €200,000. The only scheme that will work for us now is a restoration of the NPWS farm plans.”
The west coast farmers argue that the new schemes do not offer the level of support needed for their local environmental issues. With the change from farm plans to Glas, control of the funding has also gone from the NWPS to into the Department of Agriculture through the National Development Plan. Formal meetings since 2012 have failed to deliver the changes sought.
Farmers in the Shannon Callow have mounted signs banning Birdwatch Ireland and the NPWS from entering their lands. They say they won’t take down the signs until the 15-year farm plans have been honoured.
Last year, the group blocked the river. Further protests are planned this year. Mr Killeen said the IFA has plans to lift the issue to the top of its agenda in the coming months.
The IFA said its members have voiced their opposition to the designation of land since the late 1990s. However, given that the EU Birds and Habitats Directives are obligatory on member states, IFA has strongly pursued a compensation mechanism from whatever source to make up the losses incurred from the designation of land.
In the 1997 and 2004 SAC agreements with Government, farmers were promised adequate compensation for restrictions on farming with recourse to arbitration in any disputed cases.
“There has been no case put forward for arbitration,” said an IFA spokesman. “IFA has always stated the best mechanism of compensation is the NPWS Farm Plan Scheme. This closed for new applicants in 2010. There are no farmers in this scheme.”
The only new measure on the horizon is the Locally Led Scheme, which may help farmers in designations.
“IFA estimates that a significant number of farmers in the Shannon Callows are in the GLAS scheme with measures such as the Wader Bird, Private Natura and other measures,” added the spokesperson.
“At the latest meeting with Minister Humphreys, IFA again looked for the restoration of the NPWS Farm Plan Scheme.”
IFA has created working groups to cover each designated land group in its lobbying plans. For the Shannon Callows, nominations for each of the four counties.
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