Stephen Cadogan: Only 66% response to sheep scheme opportunity

The new €10 per ewe sheep welfare scheme has been heralded as a unique opportunity for sheep farmers, but it looks like only about two out of three will participate.

IFA had called on all sheep farmers with ewes to make an application for the new €10 per ewe scheme without delay, saying this was a unique opportunity that should not be missed, and the Department of Agriculture should be targeting more than 30,000 sheep farmers and 2.5m ewes for the scheme.

A very positive reaction from farmers was expected.

However, only about 20,000 farmers had applied for the Scheme by the January 31 closing date.

On that date, Agriculture Minister Michael Creed announced an extension of the closing to February 3.

It remains to be seen how many will ultimately sign up, and commit to the scheme and last the pace.

However, there will no doubt be disappointment at the response, bearing in mind the Government’s €25 million commitment at a time when exchequer funding is scarce. 

When the scheme was confirmed in the Budget last October, it was pointed out by Green Party leader Eamon Ryan that funding for sheep welfare increased four times more than for the Home Carer Tax Credit for parents raising children at home (however, the sheep welfare scheme is co-funded by the EU).

The scheme offers support of €10 per ewe to farmers with breeding ewe flocks.

Over four years, farmers are required to undertake two actions in each year of the scheme, with actions to be chosen from a menu of actions linked to lowland and hill type flocks.

Failure to complete one or both actions will result in reduced payments and penalties.

After each year, the farmer will be asked whether he wishes to continue for another year , or to withdraw (without clawback, if all actions completed).

Could the relatively poor response be an indication of difficulties in the drystock sector, or that Ireland’s aged farming population is running out of steam? 

This sector has a lot of part-time farming. Maybe improving opportunities outside the farm gate are pulling resources away from the drystock sector, leaving them unable to take up new schemes.

The 66% response to the sheep welfare scheme follows the even poorer response to the Beef Genomics and Beef Data (BDGP) scheme when it was launched in 2015, and fewer than 50% of suckler cow farmers applied.

What has happened since 2008, when more than 53,000 out of almost 73,000 suckler cow farmers applied to take part in the suckler cow welfare scheme?

Now, up to 64,000 farmers are estimated to be still producing calves from the suckler herd. It was hoped to get at least 35,000 of them into the BDGP.

But only 29,862 committed, and fewer than 24,000 have stayed the course and qualified for payments to date.

Low uptake has been evident across all counties.

The BDGP was launched in 2015 to inject up to €52m per annum for six years into the suckler beef sector, while accelerating genetic improvement and improving environmental sustainability. Farmers were required to commit for six years. Maybe some of the drystock farmers already committed to this felt it would be to much for them to take on the sheep welfare scheme also.

Perhaps the new Sheep Welfare Scheme could have been timed better. Farmers up to their necks in winter work may have been less inclined to make the commitment to the extra sheep welfare work required.

Suckler farmers and sheep farmers depend very heavily on payments under the rural development programme, the EU basic payment scheme, and disadvantaged area payments.

Their poor response to schemes should serve as a warning that they are vulnerable ahead of threats such as Brexit, and the shake-up of disadvantaged areas in 2018, when area boundaries will be redrawn, but an extra €25m injection of funding is also due from the Government.



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