Only a thin red line now separates many hard- pressed farmers from crippling fines for over- claiming for EU payments on non-farmed land.
In some cases, the fines are retrospective, going back over the last five years.
Farmers are protesting today outside the offices of three West Cork TDs.
Their concerns relate to fines they must pay for having included in payment applications — inadvertently or otherwise — ineligible features such as barns, scrubs, roadways, forests and lakes.
Today’s protests in Bantry, Dunmanway and Bandon have been organised by the West Cork Communities Alliance, along with the Irish Cattle and Sheep Farmers’ Association, the Cork County Community and Voluntary Forum and concerned farmers.
Landowners say they have received letters out of the blue, accompanied by large bills. They complain about mapping inaccuracies including a lake that didn’t exist and shadows cast by mature oak trees, which showed up on satellite maps and ruled the land as being ineligible for agriculture.
Every year farmers must draw a red line on a map around areas that are no longer agricultural land.
They face penalties if they make a mistake greater than one tenth of a hectare (quarter of an acre). But some farmers say they are being accused of over- claiming on even smaller areas.
Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney says the only farmers who will be asked to repay money are those who over-claimed — whether they knew this or not.
His department must assess every farm to see if there has been an over- claim of payments on ineligible land during the last five years.
All overpayments must be returned to the EU. Those receiving over-claim letters are also informed of the appeals process.
Farmers say appeals are slow, and can lead to delays in payments and further inspections. Hardest hit by these cuts are those who farm on marginal land that has outcroppings of rock, furze and native tree species.
Newly-appointed ICSA president Patrick Kent said retrospective penalties for land eligibility over-claims cannot be tolerated.
“The immense injustice felt by many farmers over the department’s land eligibility review cannot be ignored,” said Mr Kent. “These farmers are coming under extreme pressure to pay bills which are higher than usual anyway because of the impact of the fodder crisis.
“I am absolutely appalled that there is a serious threat of five years of retrospective penalties. This cannot be tolerated, and I want to make it clear that the ICSA cannot accept such injustice.
“Many farmers are suffering a penalty on land they were told was excellent habitat when they were in REPS. Now the signal is that the land should be bulldozed or burnt. Farmers still haven’t seen anyone punished for the horsemeat scandal. But there seems to be no end to penalties for the slightest perceived error on-farm,” he said.
The alliance said the purpose of the protests is to bring the hardship that farmers are suffering to the attention of local TDs and to strengthen the hand of the Oireachtas members in dealing with the minister.
“We would like to extend an invitation to him to visit some of the farms where penalties have been imposed and to witness first -hand the hardship they are enduring,” the alliance said.
Mr Coveney said: “We do not want to put anyone out of business and will help farmers with any difficulties.
“The notion that we can simply ignore this problem because it is awkward and difficult is not an option.
“Representatives of the commission are coming to Ireland in the second week of February to assess how we are dealing with it.”
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