I wish to share my time with Deputy Joe Walsh.
Adjournment Debate. - Sheep Farmers' Compensation.
An Leas-Cheann Comhairle
Is that agreed? Agreed.
This matter is important for the Nire Valley sheep farmers who see themselves as forgotten, despite the cost of resolving this problem being small in terms of the budget of the Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry. The problem is the result of a severe blizzard which occurred in the Nire Valley area in the Comeragh Mountains in March 1996 when 21 sheep farmers suffered a loss of 1,500 sheep in snow drifts. I previously asked in a parliamentary question that a five year scheme be implemented to allow ewe numbers to be increased to levels they were at before the disaster and called on the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Forestry to grant full payment to the farmers involved for five years on existing quota numbers to protect their livelihoods while they rebuilt their flocks. However, the Minister hid behind EU regulations and refused to pay the compensation as requested. I pointed out at the time that the cost to the Exchequer would be minimal and I am convinced that, because of the bizarre nature of this incident, a precedent would not be set although an earlier precedent was set for it.
I am certain that, if this group were larger and more vociferous, action would have been taken by now. They live close to Clonmel, the inhabitants of which were compensated when the town was flooded. The Government gave in because the town was up in arms but not in this case because only a small number of people is involved. It is felt in Government circles that these few people trying to make a living on the side of a mountain do not matter. One of the farmers has already been forced to sell and emigrate as he could no longer wait for assistance. The attitude of the Minister and the Department is shameful and typical of this Government which obviously has no interest in the weaker sections of our society.
The Minister indicated he could not get any assistance from Europe. However, in 1982 £30 per ewe compensation was paid after a big snowfall and £690,000 was allocated to the Department at that time to deal with the problem. In 1978 interest free loans were given to farmers who suffered losses and in both those cases verification was not needed in terms of herd numbers, etc. In this case the herd numbers could be easily identified.
It will take these farmers three to four years to build up their herds and it must be remembered they cannot simply buy ewes as ewes must be bred locally to survive on the mountain. I do not know if the Minister of State is aware that the type of sheep most farmers keep would not survive on the side of a mountain. It is not simply a matter of going to the mart to replace the stock that have been lost.
I hope the Minister of State will not trot out the force majeure provisions or remind me that ewe and headage premiums were paid in 1996. I know all that. I am asking him to treat these sheep farmers of the Nire Valley fairly to allow them to rebuild their livelihoods and provide for their families.
I thank the Chair for allowing me to contribute in support of the case being made by my colleague, Deputy Kenneally, for 21 sheep farmers in the Nire Valley who have suffered a natural disaster resulting in the loss of a good deal of their sheep herds and who are looking for some remedy and support from the Government. There is a precedent for this in agriculture. A few years ago farmers in Donegal suffered potato loss, the horticulture industry also suffered a loss and provision was made to support them in those desperate circumstances. There is a desperate need to support these 21 farmers who have suffered the loss of 1,500 sheep. I make a plea in support of Deputy Kenneally to the Minister of State to come up with a formula to help these sheep farmers. He need not resort to EU regulations. These mountain sheep farmers who are doing their best to make a living under very difficult and inclement conditions have suffered a natural disaster. If a caring Government is about anything, it is about intervening in a case such as this to bail out these farmers and to come up with a formula to support and tide them over until such time as they can build up their stocks. Rather than doing that, it was pernicious of the Government this year to cut the ewe premium given to those mountain farmers by £6.60 per head. I look forward to a positive reply in support of these farmers from the Minister of State.
The Deputy should know about the ewe premium as he was involved in calculating it. The Department and the Minister noted, with concern, the blizzard conditions and heavy snowfalls in the area of the Comeragh Mountains and in the Nire Valley in County Waterford on 12, 13 and 14 March 1996. Many sheep producers suffered large scale losses and, as a consequence, were faced with a difficult financial situation in 1996 and in the current year. On learning of this, the Minister immediately instructed officials from his Department to visit the area to carry out an assessment of the damage done, with a view to putting in motion some means of providing assistance to these producers. A report indicated that as a result of this freak storm 22 sheep producers lost 1,580 sheep out of a total of 7,876 ewes which had been applied for under the ewe premium scheme. This included nine producers losing more than 20 per cent and the three most severely hit losing approximately 45 per cent of their breeding stock.
There is always a great difficulty regarding where the State can and should step in when individuals have been hit by an unexpected disaster. Since public funds do not draw from an unlimited purse, it is not possible to provide financial support in all cases of hardship even where the case, on the face of it may be very deserving. By and large assistance has to be confined to situations of large-scale loss or disaster on a national scale or to a situation which would not be adequately covered by a private insurance policy. The Minister immediately set about providing some means of minimising the hardship of the producers in this area recognising that they had suffered not only the loss of valuable livestock but of income earning potential in 1996 and 1997.
Under EU Regulations an annual premium is paid for ewes subject to an individual limit or quota provided certain conditions are met. Among those conditions is the requirement that flocks are maintained by the owner for a specific retention period, and in 1996 the retention period was 9 January 1996 to 18 April 1996. The March snowstorm occurred during this retention period. In normal circumstances EU Regulations do not permit the payment of ewe premiums if the animals have not been kept or died on the holding during the period specified. The Minister secured the agreement of the EU Commission to ensure that force majeure conditions can be applied in this case, thus allowing the full ewe premium and headage payment to be paid in 1996 for the sheep lost in this disaster. The premium, rural world premium and headage together were worth £30.50.
EU Regulations also allow that in certain circumstances producers who may be unable to replace fully lost stock will not suffer loss of their sheep quotas. Last year the Minister directed that a provision would be made exempting Nire Valley sheep farmers affected by this disaster from the requirement to use 70 per cent of their quota in 1996 and 1997 so that none of the quota rights was forfeited as a result of their misfortune. These arrangements allow a breathing space in which a breeding programme for replacements can be put in place.
In the interests of competitiveness EU Regulations exert a very restrictive influence so that member states are precluded from subsidising their own productive sectors at the expense of other areas in the Community. There have been requests for assistance for those affected by this snowstorm from a special disaster fund. However, the fund available within the EU is specially for humanitarian aid or a national emergency, and unfortunately the sheep losses in 1996 on the Comeragh Mountains do not fall into either of these two categories.
In the case of the losses suffered by the sheep farmers in the Nire Valley last year their situation has already received considerable sympathetic support. As a result of the actions of the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Forestry each producer received a payment of £30.50 in respect of each ewe lost, where eligibility for that payment would otherwise have lapsed. In addition, producers now have a two year period to build up their flocks to the original size without loss of quota. The Minister has done all in his power within the limits of available resources to assist this group of producers by ensuring full premium and headage payments in 1996 and allowing for an exemption by the sheep farmers affected from the usage clause of the quota regulations. It is not possible under EU rules to continue payment of the premium, headage or rural world premium for sheep which died in 1996 and if a further period is necessary to breed replacements the national quota group will look sympathetically at any request for restoration of quota rights which may have been lost.
A number of factors make the losses suffered in the Nire Valley last year unique. The sudden blizzard in mid-March, at a time of otherwise seasonal weather conditions, was unexpected. The fact that replacement ewes have to be bred locally imposes an additional difficulty for the producers who are trying to get back into full production. In the context of these unusual circumstances an approach has been made to the Department of Finance seeking a once-off compensation package to offset the hardship which has been suffered. However, this approach has to be seen in the context of many demands on the limited funds available for hardship cases.
The Dáil adjourned at 10.50 until 10.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 26 March 1997.