THE designation of land for the protection of the hen harrier is turning many rural areas across nine Irish counties into a wilderness. Critics of the designation, who claim this to be the case, say farming restrictions associated with the designation are preventing thousands of families from working the land concerned and is depriving them of a viable income from farming. But the impact goes even further and is now being seen as yet another serious threat to the survival of small rural communities.
That’s because the value of land in designated areas is regarded as being worthless because it can’t be planted and, therefore, will not attract bids from potential buyers if it is put up for sale.
Irish Farmers with Designated Land (IFDL) estimates that 169,000 hectares of land mainly owned by 4,400 families in six designated areas have been devaluated by €980m. It says there would be riots if that level of intolerable asset stripping was applied to property owned by people in any other sector of society.
Farmers in the designaged areas, fearing they are being forced to abandon lands their families have worked for generations, are furious over what has happened. They warn that rural areas will be decimated if the present situation continues and will not even be of benefit to the hen harrier in the long term because farmers will not be there to look after the habitats.
Hen harriers are protected under the EU Birds Directive. Special protection areas for the species were designagted in 2007 in Clare, Galway, Tipperary, Limerick, Cork, Kerry, Laois, Offaly, and Monaghan.
Low hills, heath, bogs, rough grassland, and conifer plantations are regarded as important breeding habitats for the bird of prey, which has an impressive wing span.
Ireland is required to identify and protect the most important sites for the species. Failure to do so could result in heavy fines being imposed on the State by the European courts.
Farmers have been providing suitable habitats at no cost to the State for hundreds of years and, as custodians of the countrywide, they have an inherited interest in protecting nature and wildlife and have always welcomed rare birds.
The shooting dead of Heather, a satellite tagged female hen harrier, in Kerry last month, was strongly condemned by conservaion groups and by Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney, who warned that nobody should take the law into their own hand.
The incident was also condemend by IFDL, which has repeatedly stressed that the hen harrier is not the issue. The designation is what is causing the problems.
Over the years, the numbers of breeding pairs in Ireland have declined due to a variety of reasons and are now believed to total about 100.
IFDL chairman Jason Fitzgerald said lands were designated as special protection areas based on an agreement that farmers and landowners would receive a fair and proper level of compensation.
Due to budgetary constraints, the scheme closed to new applicants in April 2010 after 377 farmers (9%) had successfully accessed the scheme. That left over 4,000 farmers without any compensation, while still holding the designation and restrictions on their lands.
Farmers claim their designated land is only worth €1,000 per acre, while adjoining undesignated land is worth at least €4,000/acre for forestry.
Mr Fitzgerald said a grave injustice has been placed on these farmers. Probably the most serious consequence is the mental strain and depression being caused. Communities are devastated that the value of land has disappeared. A satisfactory resolution has to be found. These areas have some of the most challenging arable land in the country. “The main concern is that farmers are not able to make an income from their lands. The other issue is that they can’t sell their land. It is completely worthless. Those issues have to be addressed,” he said.
Mr Fitzgerald said a viable long-term scheme has to be introduced. Certainty on the value of land and the future of farming in those areas must be introduced. “If farmers can’t survive in these areas, hen harriers will not either,” said Mr Fitzgerald.
Meanwhile, an inter-departmental group is being set up by Arts, Heritage, and Gaeltacht Minister Heather Humphreys to provide an overall plan to improve the prospects of the hen harrier, while bringing clarity to wider issues, including afforestation and wind energy.
The Government’s draft Rural Development Programme, which is awaiting European Commission approval, includes proposals for the support of hen harrier sites under the GLAS environental scheme.
Mr Coveney told Oireachtas members last month the vast majority of farmers affected by hen harrier designation receive no extra payments. “We are correcting this and incorporating into the GLAS scheme a recognition that certain designations limit a farmer’s activity and income potential and that there needs to be compensation for it,” he said.
However, the IFDL said the problem with GLAS is that it is a five-year scheme. Farmers with hen harrier- protected land need a long-term scheme to ensure that farming in these regions is as viable as forestry.
His family has farmed the marginal land for 110 years, but he is now severely restricted in the work he can do because it is in a hen harrier protected area.
There is also a ban on afforestation, a highly contentious issue for farmers and landowners with land in designated areas because it will not attract potential buyers with capital to invest in planting
“This designation leaves us with an asset that is virtually valueless without investors to put a floor value under it. Where I am living, all the land is designated,” he says.
Tom , who farms 160 acres, with another 50 acres in forestry, says he has no problem with the hen harrier or any other wildlife.
“I would be quite happy if the restrictions were removed and the birds left to fend for themselves as they always did,” he says. “They co-existed with the farmers and thrived for generations.
“There should be compensation for the designation while it lasts. In my own case for instance, I had a valuation on my land from a forester for €510,000.
“If any other property owners got that amount of asset removed through no fault of their own there would be uproar.
“I am looking for fairness like any other landowner in this country. I want equal rights. I have this place all my life and invested all my time and labour and money in it.
“We are willing to work with the National Parks and Wildllife Service but we must be compensated for the restrictions. The land owned by the 4,400 families affected by the hen harrier designations equates to 6% of the country’s land mass.
“It is the most disadvantaged land in the country. These farm families are shocked that their asset has been removed.”
Deploring the shooting dead of a female hen harrier last month, Tom says he was shocked at the killing.
“It was a disgrace and didn’t do any favour for farmers, who have no objection whatsoever to the bird,” he says.