The problem of overgrazing occurs mainly in commonages in western areas where there are high densities of sheep. The EU Commission has instituted legal proceedings against Ireland because of the damage occurring to natural habitats as a result of overgrazing. The rural environment protection scheme, operated by the Department of Agriculture and Food, has been amended recently to include new provisions for the conservation of natural heritage areas and commonages. The revised scheme requires commonage framework plans to be prepared for each commonage; these plans will prescribe sustainable stocking levels for each commonage and specify other conservation measures designed to encourage the vegetation to recover; they will be prepared by approved planners trained and supervised jointly by my Department and the Department of Agriculture and Food. Individual commonage shareholders will be required to manage their stocking levels in accordance with the overall framework plan.
There is a need to apply the measures at an early date and, in order to avoid delays in implementing the measures, both Departments are examining ways of speeding up the process and investigating whether interim measures may be taken to enable farmers with land in an over-grazed commonage to participate earlier in the revised scheme.
In addition to these measures the Department of Agriculture and Food is introducing cross-compliance whereby farmers who fail to reduce their stock levels in accordance with the plans will be ineligible for headage or premia payments, other than when they are operating in accordance with an approved rural environment protection scheme plan or a farm plan prepared by my Department.
The effect of the measures on the vegetation cover will be monitored to ascertain whether additional reductions are required and if, or when, stock numbers may be increased. I am confident that all these measures will, when fully implemented, redress the problem of overgrazing.