Only two weeks left to ensure land is eligible for payments

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10 years on, farmers get 26 extra pages of advice on what land is eligible for their payment claims

With such a diverse landscape, arguments are inevitable over which Irish acres are eligible for €1.2bn of annual EU farmer payments since 2005.

According to the Department of Agriculture, there are no issues with most of the land declared by farmers in Ireland. But questions arise in the case of some marginal land where, in some instances, very little maintenance is carried out by the payment applicants farming the land.

To assist these farmers in particular, the Department recently published an eligibility booklet guide.

Farmers have seized on this initiative, by pointing out that the new booklet requires 29 pages to attempt to define what land is eligible.

They are enraged, because until the booklet was launched on April 28 last, farmers say they had only a three-page document on the Department’s website to guide them on land eligibility. And portions of the land on 33,000 farms were deemed ineligible in 2013, resulting in EU payment cuts.

This was appealed through official processes by 10,000 farmers — and the Disadvantaged Farmers Legal Challenge group is trying to raise €100,000 for a legal challenge against the Department of Agriculture over the payment cuts in marginal and disadvantaged areas, amid fears farmers will have to pay back penalties on “over-claimed” land for the previous five years.

Meanwhile, the Department of Agriculture is fighting an EU proposal to fine Ireland €181m, for alleged irregularities in these farmer payment schemes — much of which are linked to land eligibility.

The land eligibility row has left the Department between a rock and a hard place. But farmers feel they are in the same predicament, because if their payment claim hectares are deemed ineligible, they could face restospective fines going back five years — and lose out on payments for the next five years.

They have only two weeks left to apply for the 2015 payments, and it is still open to all farmers to take necessary actions, including grazing or mechanical means, to ensure the land they declare in 2015 is eligible for payment.

But there is also the risk of over-claiming, if they misinterpret the guidelines in the Department’s new 29-page explanation of eligible land — or, farmers would say, if an inspector visits, and makes a subjective assessment of eligibility at odds with the farmer’s or the Department’s interpretations.

The Department’s advice is that farmers have a buffer. “If they were allocated 50 entitlements in 2015, they are declaring 60 hectares, and if there is an issue about land subsequently, any resulting reduction will be based on the number of entitlements held or lands declared, whichever is the lower. That provides farmers with a buffer, which is very important for them,” said an official.

It’s a burning issue, especially on marginal land — but burning was the wrong choice for some landowners trying to ensure their land is eligible for payments.

The land must be maintained in a state suitable for grazing and cultivation.

According to the Department, it is a matter for individual farmers to decide how to best maintain their land in such a state. It can be achieved by growing crops, grazing in the normal traditional manner, or using mechanical means.

However, the Department is totally opposed to uncontrolled burning that damages the environment, puts lives at risk and damages property.

The Department can accept burning that is carried out in a controlled manner in full compliance with all relevant environmental and any other lawful requirements, where the Garda and local fire services were first consulted and notified.

In the case of non-controlled burning, the land that is burned will not be deemed to be in a state suitable for grazing or cultivation, and will therefore be ineligible for payment in the year of burning.

This has opened a new chapter in the war of words between marginal land farmers and Department officials.

The question has been asked, “What happens if somebody else sets a farmer’s hill alight?” The Department’s answer is that no farmer who is a victim of burning, with somebody else having set the fire, will be penalised. Such cases will be dealt with on the basis of force majeure.

However, if officials find that a farmer has deliberately started an uncontrolled fire without notifying the relevant authorities, he will be penalised.

How is it proved if a dispute arises as to whether a fire was accidental?

According to a Department official, “There has to be a way of proving that somebody caused the fire. In a situation where a person carried out a controlled burn, and accidentally burned down somebody else’s land, that second farmer is innocent of this and that is the basis on which the Department would proceed.

There is a burden of proof if one is to penalise a farmer. It must be proved that the farmer actually set the fire and did so outside the rules that require controlled burning.

There is an onus on the Department to ensure that the evidence is there to prove that the guilty farmer is guilty and also that innocent victims of fires are not penalised.”

Either way, payments for an estimated 5,000 hectares damaged in spring wildfires could be at stake.


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