A stocking rate of at least one ewe per 1.5 hectares is the only thing a farmers with commonage will require, to get a single farm payment, according to Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney.
“Essentially, he or she will need to have one sheep for each area of between three and a half and four acres,” he said.
“If one has not been doing much farming over recent years, or if one has a very low stocking rate, one should be fine as long as one builds up a basic stocking rate before the end of next year.”
“If one is farming in an area where a lower stocking rate is required because of environmental restrictions, that is fine. One automatically qualifies as long as one has some level of stocking.”
He said there seems to have been a great deal of confusion about how farmers with commonage can qualify for a single farm payment, but it is very easy, they just need to have some level of activity in the commonage land.
“Obviously, we discussed this very low stocking rate with the farming organisations before we settled on it. We have to be credible with the Commission. There needs to be some level of proof that there is farming activity going on in the hills. The obvious way to do that is to focus on stocking levels.”
From 2015 onwards, the minimum grazing requirement must be met in order to qualify for the Basic Payment Scheme (BPS, formerly the single payment) and the Areas of Natural Constraints Scheme (ANC, formerly the disadvantaged areas payment) under the new CAP — and does not require a grazing plan with at least 50% of farmers using the same commonage.
These requirements must be met by each individual claimant by the end of December 2015, at the latest.
A lower grazing level will be fixed for marginal lands where it is necessary on environmental grounds.
The Department of Agriculture is writing to all commonage claimants setting out their individual grazing requirements for marginal lands. If the claimants consider that the figures provided would not meet the requirements of their commonage, they can submit an assessment by a professional planner providing alternative figures.
Above the minimum stocking level of one ewe per 1.5 hectares, the management of the grazing requirement is a matter for individual claimants, provided that the commonage is kept in good agricultural and environmental condition, and meets all the requirements for both the BPS and ANC schemes. Farmers must keep the land adequately grazed to ensure the commonage retains the area eligible for payment.
He said commonage farmers will get priority access and acceptance into the new GLAS scheme, but if GLAS is to be credible, farmers have to do something else, other than qualifying for a single farm payment, to get €5,000. “Essentially, they have to agree to farm in accordance with a GLAS commonage plan.”
“At least 50% of the active farmers in that commonage area, or the farmers who own 50% of the area of the commonage, have to be doing that.”
“If, for whatever reason, farmers who want to apply to GLAS cannot get 50% of the active farmers in the commonage area to be part of it, they can work through the implementation group, which will help them to do it.”
He said the idea underpinning the commonage areas implementation group is that a group of experienced people, who are farmer-friendly, speak a language everybody understands, and have an appreciation of commonage farming, will sit down and work out with farmers what they need to do to qualify for basic payments.
Responding in the Dáil to Galway West Fianna Fáil TD Éamon Ó Cuív, Mr Coveney said a GLAS commonage plan would be likely to require management of scrub, some limitations on burning, maintaining land in reasonable agricultural condition, and so forth. “These are the kinds of things that ensure that a commonage is protected in terms of its biodiversity and natural condition.”
“In order for farmers to draw down their payment of up to €5,000 under the terms of GLAS, based on €120 per hectare, or more than €5,000 under the GLAS plus scheme, at least half of the active farmers on that commonage will have to buy into it. Otherwise the scheme would not have any credibility in the eyes of the European Commission, in the context of collective farming.”
“We are not asking for a collective agreement. We are not even saying that every farmer has to use the same planner. All we are saying is that there must be a plan in place. The implementation group will help to ensure that such a plan is put in place, and farmers can then sign up to it, either through their own planner or by working with the planner who has put the plan in place.”
“They must then farm in a way that is consistent with the commonage plan. If there is a problem with numbers, the implementation group can help by speaking to other farmers who, for whatever reason, may not want to be part of it.”
“There must be flexibilities because this is collective farming. Some farmers in the commonage will contribute less, some more, but the average overall stocking rate numbers need to be appropriate to the commonage and the way in which it is farmed needs to be consistent, if they are to draw down a GLAS payment with a GLAS commonage plan.
Deputy Ó Cuív said some farmers farm the lowland but not the commonage. Mr Coveney responded, “We must have a minimum level of agricultural activity in the commonage areas where farmers are drawing down payments, and we should be able to manage that in a way that allows farmers to do that. If farmers decide to not do that and to focus on other land, they should not draw down payments on the land on which they are not farming.” Mr Coveney warned against that approach which, when audited by the Commission, would lead to another land parcel issue of farmers drawing down payments on land which they are not farming (the European Commission is currently seeking to disallow 181m of funding to Ireland relating to payments over the past five years on ineligible land parcels). Mr Coveney has said preservation and restoration of commonages, and the continuation of suitable and environmentally friendly farming practices on the hills, is a core element of GLAS, and part of Ireland’s overall plan for halting biodiversity loss. “In recognition of the importance of commonages, hill farmers will get priority access to GLAS, but it is accepted by all that the most effective management of those hills is achieved when those who are actively farming it work together.”
“That is why the creation of a commonage management plan that encourages the shareholders themselves to take control of the grazing of their commonage is the model we have chosen for GLAS.”
He said there is no imposition of minimum or maximum stocking densities, and commonages of less than 10 ha will not be subject to any minimum participation requirement. “On commonages of that size, farmers can enter GLAS in their own right.”
“I do not believe that a minimum participation requirement based on this model is insurmountable and there are ways in which the application process can be structured that might assist. However, where real difficulties are being encountered, the farmers concerned can make a case to the commonage implementation committee for entry to the scheme. If it is clear that the farmer or farmers have made every effort to meet the requirement but have failed through no fault of their own, they will not be locked out of GLAS.”
A total of 14,936 farmers declare commonage land under the Single Payment Scheme and the Disadvantaged Areas Scheme. About 7% of the lands declared nationally in direct payment schemes are commonage lands.
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