The Hill Farming Forum in Connemara organised by the IFA last week was an opportunity to examine how best to unlock the potential of farming on our uplands.
A large crowd of hill farmers attended both the farm visit and the subsequent meeting.
Despite the challenges posed for hill farmers in these areas, a sustainable future can be charted for them, if a number of specific policy measures are pursued.
Most hill and mountain lands are designated as Special Areas of Conservation or Special Protected Areas. It means farmers in these areas have severe restrictions imposed on them, which impacts on their ability to farm and generate income. Some 20% of the country’s land mass could be described as hill-type land.
Hill farmers provide vital public goods in the form of landscape management, biodiversity and environmental improvements across large areas of hill and mountain lands and farmers are entitled to be paid for these services.
A key measure is the €25m increase in Areas of National Constraint (ANC) payments secured by the IFA under the Programme for Government in 2016. This must be paid out to farmers in 2018 and it will be a central element of our pre-Budget submission.
Hill farmers must benefit from this budget increase as they were the farmers who lost out most in the 2009 cuts.
It looks like the Austrian move to defer the review of the ANCs will be approved by the EU Farm Council. While Agriculture Minister Michael Creed has backed the deferral of the review of ANCs, there can be no deviation from the IFA proposal that payments reflect the natural disadvantage of the land type. We will continue to pursue the Government on this.
The 2015 Teagasc National Farm survey clearly highlights the low incomes from Hill Sheep farming, with the average income at €14,743. This works out at only €283 per week. The figures show that direct payments are a vital support, whether it is Basic Payment, ANC, Glas, or Sheep Welfare. Direct payments for hill farmers must be protected and enhanced.
The payment delays under GLAS were particularly severe for commonage farmers because of their income dependence on direct payments. Mr Creed cannot stand over the payment delays on Glas, which is undermining this important environment scheme at farm level.
On the Heritage Bill, it is of vital importance that the Heritage Bill is passed in the Dáil to allow for better management of hill areas through controlled burning of vegetation.
The price momentum on early lamb has to be maintained later into the lamb selling season. Hogget finishers, who are vital to the light lamb and store lamb trade had a very difficult season with prices well back on last year.
Hill sheep farmers have made considerable progress in recent years by improving and adopting both breeding and production to meet market requirements. Producers can maximise their returns by ensuring they have a suitable lamb which meets a particular market requirement, whether it is a ewe lamb for breeding, a lamb for store buyers or a light finished lamb for the factory.
IFA worked hard and secured €25m in additional funding for the new Sheep Welfare Scheme which was taken up by 22,500 sheep farmers on 2m ewes.
The estimated €5m underspend in this scheme must be fully protected for the sheep sector.
The IFA National Sheep Committee is considering a number of options for the €5m, including a proposal from the Connemara meeting that it would go to hill sheep farmers.
We’ve already had contact with senior officials in the Department of Agriculture on the matter. IFA will consult widely with sheep producers via our branches and county executive structure.
The increase in sheep numbers of 137,000 ewes in the December 2016 census is positive for the sheep sector. On Brexit, IFA will keep the farming and the agriculture sector top of the Government’s agenda.
On sheep, free trade access to the UK market and the New Zealand imports are the key issues, along with maintaining the CAP budget.
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