Scheme after scheme was designed to support them, while protecting nature on the hills. And they are still failing, according to the latest assessment.
The millennium year of 2000 proved fateful for hill farmers in Donegal, Leitrim, Sligo, Mayo, Galway, and Kerry who use commonage. They were required to destock by 30%, in a framework plan designed to protect uplands.
Since then, farming and other developments were restricted on up to 60% of upland areas by environmental designations, many subsidies were reduced due to lack of funding, areas eligible for payments have been lost in inspections, and the payments which most hill farmers depend heavily on have proved less than reliable.
As for the protection of nature which is built into the plethora of schemes aimed at hill farmers, here’s what the European Forum on Nature Conservation and Pastoralism (EFNCP) said in its latest report: the danger continues of loss of semi-natural grasslands through intensification of management, and land abandonment, despite all the rules and controls governing hill-farming.
EFNCP is a network of farmers, ecologists, nature conservationists and policymakers. They have called the EU’s new greening payment scheme as “fundamentally flawed. .. especially for semi-natural or high nature value pastures”.
Guy Beaufoy, senior policy manager with the organisation, says the reformed mainstream CAP payments fail to address the main challenges “and even exacerbate the threat of abandonment or damaging actions by farmers in some situations”.
The forum is helping the European Commission try out new schemes based on paying for results such as vegetation and nature improvements achieved by farmers.
If successful, these could replace existing schemes which are based solely on prescribed actions such as grazing dates, or livestock density limits, schemes which have been criticised for poor delivery of environmental outcomes, failing to inv- olve the farmer in management decisions, schemes which undervalue farmer skills and experience.
As part of the research work, the forum has published country reports; and its Irish report does not make pretty reading, with the forum saying there are severe short-comings in the ‘greenness’ and in the fairness of our permanent pasture farming schemes — thus failing to meet two key components of the CAP reform process.
Take fairness. Convergence is the most important feature in the CAP reform switch from single-farm payments to basic payments. Convergence means all farmers’ payments will move towards the national average.
In Ireland, convergence is towards only 90% of the 2019 average, but it is not clear when even that is going to be achieved.
Colin Gallagher, Caitriona Maher (NUI Galway), and Gwyn Jones of the forum failed to “find any statement that it is the goal of policy to reach a single national payment rate by some specific date”.
They say there are also de facto “clawbacks” slowing up convergence. According to EFNCP’s report, “incorporating the Sheep Grassland Scheme payment into the Basic Payment Scheme erodes the benefit that low-payment farmers might have seen through the implementation of internal convergence and a minimum payment”.
They also say the Beef Data and Genomics Programme works against the financial interests of farmers in upland, high-nature value areas, and will damage extensive, low-input, semi natural grassland systems.
They say the BDGP has the opposite effect to convergence. It “should probably be seen as part of an effort to ‘rebalance’ the CAP in favour of those who will lose out from the redistribution of Pillar 1 funds”.
As for the overall aim of farmer payments and rural development measures, such as greening or agri-environment measures, EFNCP point to “apparently contradictory payments” and “meaningless” reporting of scheme results.
Eligibility of farmland for payments — a basic requirement to achieve the aims of schemes — is a “mess”, according to the forum, with some commonage areas in south Co Galway having their eligible areas reduced as much as 85%, until this was overturned, following appeals.
They say nature too is a victim of the ineligibility mess. “Rules have not been well adapted for pastures with trees”... “where isolated or scattered groups of trees form part of the pastoral landscape ... there is little or no guidance relating to these areas ... with fear of penalties, farmers could easily be redlining areas of trees, while the areas beneath the canopy are perfectly grazable.”
The forum warns that environmentally sensitive permanent grassland rules do nothing to address the threat of intensification, leaving permanent pasture areas “highly vulnerable”.
They say agri-environment (Pillar 2) payments are slightly better targeted, but “generally disappointing in their design and criteria”; and they find much to be desired in coherence between Ireland’s two rural funding Pillars.
Ireland’s Rural Development Plan has conservation status indicators, but they are full of problems that “prevent good ideas on paper from becoming meaningful tools in practice”.
It’s not just the Department of Agriculture which comes in for a grilling from the forum.
On CAP reform, the authors of the Ireland report for the forum said: “It turned out that the IFA was giving a message which was so unacceptable to a large proportion of their members in the west that a new body was formed.
“This would have lessened the value of the IFA as the traditional sounding board for the department.”
EFNCP’s report will be picked over and analysed as part of the CAP mid-term review planned for 2017.
Ireland’s next successful results-based scheme could be in the Blackstairs Mountains area of counties Carlow and Wexford, if a proposal put together by European Forum on Nature Conservation and Pastoralism and the Blackstairs Farming Group is accepted.
Ireland already has a high-profile, successful results-based agri-environment payment scheme — the Burren Life project.
Similar schemes have emerged in 10 European countries.
Burren Life is results-based, rewarding the farmers who deliver the highest environmental benefits. Conservation becomes as much a product for the farmer as the livestock produced.
The Burren programme pays for actions such as scrub clearance and results such as well-managed grassland with abundant wildflowers. The higher the score, the greater the payment made to farmers.
The Blackstairs Mountains proposal aims to maintain and enhance biodiversity, and farming systems important for biodiversity.
It would support actions on commonages over and above those covered by Glas, including land outside the commonage but managed by commonage farmers.
Objectives would include appropriate levels of grazing, good burning management, increasing the bird population (red grouse, hen harrier and other priority species), and high ecological status for all water bodies.
By maintaining and optimising habitat — in the Burren, the Blackstairs and, increasingly, in pockets around Europe — these results-based ideas represent what CAP is meant for.
Public good for public money, with more autonomy for farmers. What’s not to love?