A Connemara farmer has challenged the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) to take him to court over works he is carrying out on a special area of conservation.
Loch Con Aortha resident Seosamh Ó Suilleabháin claims the Green, Low-carbon, Agri-environment Scheme (GLAS) is so unworkable it makes it impossible for farmers like him to maintain land sustainably.
Mr Ó Suilleabháin keeps Connemara ponies on 20 acres, some 17 acres of which is within the Connemara Bog Complex SAC. His area of Loch Con Aortha is near Cill Chiaráin, some 64km west of Galway City, and has suffered severe loss of population in recent years.
“Most farmers here are getting no more than €4,000 a year for GLAS, and the conditions are very difficult,” said Mr Ó Súilleabháin.
“I have to get permission for anything I want to do with that land so who really owns the land, us or the EU?
“We will lose our population if it is made too difficult for farmers to live here, and this will have an impact on the land if it is not maintained.”
A returned emigrant, he was previously on the Agri-Environmental Options Scheme. It replaced the Rural Environmental Protection Scheme, introduced 25 years ago under the Common Agricultural Policy.
Mr Ó Suilleabháin said he was given an option to switch to GLAS when in the third year of that five-year cycle.
“As the conditions were more complicated with GLAS, I stayed with [the Agri-Environmental Options Scheme], and when I went to apply for GLAS last December I was told it was closed, and that there was no more money,” he said.
Mr Ó Suilleabháin decided the only option was to drain his land to give his ponies a break from extended wintering in sheds, and he notified the NPWS of his intention to do this last February.
He received several notices warning of compliance with conditions regarding special areas of conservation from the NPWS’s parent department, the Department of Culture, Heritage, and the Gaeltacht. He was warned he could be taken to court for not complying with the EU Habitats and Birds directives.
“I know the department won’t want to take me to court, because it doesn’t want the EU to know that it is not administering GLAS to farmers like me,” he said.
“If there had been more local consultation on EU directives, we might have a scheme now that actually protects the environment. We used to see frogspawn regularly, now you would forget you ever saw it at all, as it is so rare.
“These EU schemes for conservation have to be about people too — this is not about me, but about people who want to see the area survive.”
The Department of Culture, Heritage, and the Gaeltacht said it monitors activities within special areas of conservation and takes “appropriate action, as required”, but that it would “not be appropriate” to comment on individual cases.