I am obliged to call on the Chairman or another member of the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine nominated in his stead to move the motion. Does Deputy Heydon wish to move the motion in the Chairman's absence?
Report on Review of Commonage Land and Framework Management Plan: Motion
That Dáil Éireann notes the Report of the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine entitled Report on Review of Commonage Lands and Framework Management Plans which was laid before Dáil Éireann on 18 July 2013.
If the House is agreeable, because the Chairman of the committee has been delayed on his way here, I would like to respond to the motion now. I expect the Chairman will be present by the time I have concluded.
If Members agree, that is fine.
I thank the committee for doing a great deal of work on this issue. It is unfortunate that there are no Opposition spokespersons or Members present, although I see that one Independent Deputy has just entered the Chamber. It would be helpful if Opposition spokespersons who have asked questions in respect of commonage areas and who have sought to understand the Government's approach to the matter were here, particularly as there are many positive things to say. From the perspective of my party and that of the Government, commonage farming is a big priority. We want to ensure that commonages will be looked after into the future and that they will be managed primarily by farmers' actually farming them, which is the best way - from the point of view of the environment, biodiversity and the need to retain people on the land in rural areas - to proceed in respect of them. We are very serious about achieving our goals in this regard in the immediate, medium and long term.
Commonage lands form an important part of the farming enterprises of many farmers, particularly along the west coast. They also form an important part of the local environment from the point of view of biodiversity, wildlife, amenities and economic returns - for example, from tourism. There is a substantial risk of land abandonment as under-grazing becomes more of a problem. Under-grazing leads to an increase in ineligible land under direct aid and agri-environment schemes and to the risk of imposition of financial corrections by the European Commission. The farming of commonage lands has a long tradition in Ireland. It is, by its very nature, a complex area. There are issues about the legal right to claim and there have always been disputes with regard to the grazing relating to commonages. In the vast majority of cases, however, commonage shareholders work well together on a co-operative basis.
The experience since the single farm payment was introduced in 2005 is that there is a growing problem of commonage land being abandoned by farmers. This is not good for the environment because these areas lose the specific characteristics as natural habitats for flora and fauna. In addition, the creeping ineligibility of these lands under the single farm payment scheme and other direct payment schemes poses a significant risk to the State in view of the risk of the imposition of financial corrections by the European Commission. There was also a need to replace the now outdated and no longer valid commonage grazing destocking plans, which were drawn up in the late 1990s to deal with the then over-grazing problem arising from the number of sheep maintained on the hills in order to maximise farmers' payments under the coupled ewe premium scheme.
It has been made clear that the intention is to achieve this by working with the farmers directly managing their lands and working with relevant agencies as well as the farming organisations and all other interested stakeholders. It will not be an easy task but it is achievable if we work together on a co-operative basis.
Each year approximately 4.7 million hectares of eligible land is declared by applicants under the direct aid and agri-environment schemes. Of that area, in excess of 330,000 ha of commonage lands have been declared, representing 7% of the total area declared. In 2012, almost 15,000 applicants declared commonage lands, equivalent to approximately 11% of scheme applicants.
Commonage lands in Ireland are mainly situated along the western coast, particularly in Donegal, Mayo, Galway and Kerry. The area of commonage lands in these counties is set out as follows and comprises almost 71% of the total commonage land declared: Mayo, 84,000 ha; Kerry, 54,000 ha; Donegal, 51,000 ha; and Galway, 45,000 ha. Commonage lands include upland and lowland grazing habitats. These lands have been used mainly for the maintenance of sheep flocks. Cattle are also grazed in some commonages, as are other animals such as Kerry bog ponies and Connemara ponies. Such traditional farming methods will be catered for in the outcome of any process.
At present, commonage lands in Ireland can benefit from aid payments under the single payment scheme, the disadvantaged areas scheme, the grassland sheep scheme, the rural environment protection scheme or the agri-environment options scheme. In many cases, farmers are benefiting from four payments for the same area of commonage lands, namely, the SPS, the DAS, the GSS and REPS or AEOS. The funding for these schemes comes from Pillar 1 or Pillar 2 of the Common Agricultural Policy. A primary requirement of EU regulations governing these schemes is that the lands benefiting from aid are maintained in good agricultural and environmental condition. While over-grazing is still an issue in some known areas, the main problem facing us now is the under-grazing of commonages. A variety of factors have led to the development of this problem. One was the introduction of decoupled payments in 2005, when we went from one extreme in some areas to the opposite - that is to say, there were too many sheep and now there are too few, although the profile has been improving somewhat in recent years. The age profile of farmers with commonage lands is also an issue. Low market returns resulting in reduced livestock numbers has been a factor. More attractive returns from off-farm income during the Celtic tiger era made a major difference, but obviously that has changed somewhat in the past seven years.
Under the reformed CAP regime, which was agreed during the Irish Presidency of the Council of the European Union, it was decided that direct payments should be more focused on active farmers. In this regard, it will be necessary for all farmers who apply for aid under the basic payment scheme to have an agricultural activity on each land parcel for which they are claiming aid. In the case of marginal land, including commonages, this can only be achieved by grazing that land. Member states are obliged to set requirements for the maintenance of such lands.
I have decided to set a relatively modest requirement under the Pillar 1 schemes and under the areas of natural constraint scheme - what farmers know as the DAS - for maintaining marginal land. The grazing requirement, which must be met by all applicants under the basic payment scheme, is fixed at one ewe per one and a half hectares. A lower level will be set for commonages where it is necessary from an environmental point of view. Blanket bogs are an example of such sensitive commonages. To provide flexibility for farmers who benefit from payments for commonage lands that they claim but do not graze for commonage, I decided that such applicants had until December 2015 to obtain the animals for grazing the commonage. In other words, they have plenty of time to introduce a modest stocking level on the lands that they are farming.
With a view to having a system to meet the requirements of the basic payment and areas of natural constraint schemes, which will be implemented in 2015, my Department will be writing to all commonage claimants in the coming weeks setting out individual grazing requirements for marginal lands. The claimants will have the right to submit an assessment by a professional planner providing alternative figures if they consider that the figures provided would not meet the requirements of their commonage.
As I have already stated, the only way to manage the vast majority of commonages, whether upland or lowland commonages, is to graze them. The status quo is no longer an option in some areas. If action is not taken now the areas will continue to deteriorate, which will lead to more land abandonment. If this is allowed to happen we will lose a valuable resource from the point of view of farming, the rural economy, biodiversity and wildlife. Grazing is the only method of managing much of this land.
The eligibility requirements will not be achieved unless farmers actually manage these lands and are given a role in this regard. They have the knowledge and are aware of the most effective methods in their areas, which they understand best.
It is worth noting, especially given recent public commentary and debates, that, currently, farmers with commonages receive €97 million in the single farm payment scheme each year. Under convergence as part of the new Common Agricultural Policy, a total of 12,000 of the 15,000 commonage farmers will benefit.
Unfortunately, they will not.
The overall gain is €38 million or an increase of 66% in their current payment.
No. The Minister is wrong.
The average increase per applicant is €3,141. Unfortunately, it is not convenient for Deputy Ó Cuív to accept these figures.
You will get your chance shortly, Deputy Ó Cuív.
Deputy Ó Cuív will have his opportunity to speak. Under the new CAP, a farmer with 42 ha of commonage can benefit by over €14,600 per annum if he or she participates under the single farm payment, ANC and GLAS schemes, and €16,600 if he or she benefits from GLAS plus. Such an applicant could satisfy the requirement of all schemes by grazing approximately 40 sheep.
The report of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine was published in July 2013. It states:
We recommend that the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht would consider the findings and recommendations of the report. We believe the evidence and contributions from both the witnesses and the members offer a valuable insight to designing pragmatic proposals for a workable policy.
The main issues identified within the report are as follows: optimum stocking rates tailored for individual commonages, to which we have responded; the effects of dormancy on preparing a management plan, to which we have also responded; collective arrangements, co-ownership and the possible impact of imposing collective responsibility, as opposed to a co-operative approach; burning and the rules pertaining, to allow for responsible burning as part of a commonage upland vegetation management plan; and a recommendation for output-driven models as an approach to achieving the objectives of commonage framework plans.
Much progress has been made since the publication of the report. As I announced last July, the new agri-environment scheme, GLAS, with funding of €1.45 billion over the lifetime of the rural development programme, will provide for a maximum payment of €5,000 for up to 50,000 farmers. The targeted structure of the scheme has been refined following public consultation. The preservation and restoration of commonages and the continuation of suitable and environmentally friendly farming practices on the hills are key objectives under the new GLAS scheme. In recognition of the importance of commonages, hill farmers will get priority access to GLAS. In particular, the requirement for 80% of active farmers to participate in collective action on commonage has been replaced by a 50% rate, applying to either 50% of active farmers or 50% of the total commonage land area. I established the independently chaired commonage implementation committee to address issues that arise in practice, and it is working actively.
The annual rate of €120 per hectare will apply for the GLAS actions applicable on commonages.
This is a substantial increase on the €75 rate available under the AEOS. There is no imposition of minimum or maximum stocking densities and smaller commonages of less than ten hectares in size will not be subject to any minimum participation requirement. On commonages of that size farmers can enter GLAS in their own right. The minimum 50% participation requirement is achievable and workable. However, where real difficulties are being encountered, the farmers concerned can make a case to the commonage implementation committee for entry to the scheme. If it is clear that the farmer or farmers concerned have made every effort to meet the requirement but have failed through no fault of their own, they will not be locked out of GLAS.
Some farmers have stated to me they cannot all work with the same planner, that they have different planners and would like to be able to apply using their own. That is acceptable as long as they comply with a single commonage GLAS plan submitted by one planner. If other planners are involved, that is fine as long as they ensure the farmers farm in a manner consistent with the GLAS plan for the commonage. This has been worked out through discussion and negotiation to try to be helpful on a workable basis.
The joint committee recommended that my Department avoid an unnecessarily prescriptive approach and that the minimum and maximum figures be used for guidance rather than being mandatory. The National Parks and Wildlife Service, working in conjunction with my Department, undertook an exercise which resulted in a grazing plan for each commonage. There was essentially a minimum and a maximum stocking density for each commonage. However, while these figures will be made available to commonage planners, it will be on the basis that they are essentially a guide. This is precisely in line with the joint committee's recommendation. The planner will have flexibility to put forward alternative figures if they can be supported on environmental grounds. The choice of GLAS actions included in the plan is a matter for the planner and the commonage farmers, but the actions must be such that they deliver an environmental improvement and they must be above the pillar 1 baseline which is a requirement of the new regulations. The scheme must be credible to the European Commission and shown to deliver clear environmental benefits.
I urge all commonage farmers to look closely at the options open to them. Active farmers on commonages who participate in the GLAS scheme, as well as the basic payment scheme and the areas of natural constraints scheme, can benefit from a payment of over €360 per hectare of commonage land up to 34 hectares. This is a significant reward for farming such land. In order to make farmers fully aware of the options open to them, my Department has arranged for information meetings to be held this week and next week in areas with significant tracts of commonage land, from County Donegal to west Cork and from County Wicklow to County Louth. I want farmers to actively participate in order that together we will work through any difficulty that there might be to ensure farmers believe the schemes we will be opening in the next few months are workable, practical and reflect the realities on the ground on farms and in commonage areas.
I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak on the "Report on Review of Commonage Lands and Framework Management Plans" of the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine, of which I am a member. The committee Chairman, Deputy Andrew Doyle, has been inadvertently delayed but will be with us shortly.
The report represents a timely review, following on the draft guidelines sent by the National Parks and Wildlife Service and the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht on the management of commonage lands, and looks at the future use of commonage lands. Let us be honest as so much time has passed since - it is easy to forget that the draft plans and the particularly prescriptive method to find solutions caused consternation and concern around the country. The work of the committee involved bringing in the relevant stakeholders, holding a series of meetings and teasing out from where each side was coming, their concerns, the net objectives and whether the committee could make recommendations to get to the end goal in as collaborative a way as possible. The committee held seven hearings, taking submissions from numerous stakeholders. One aim was to have a clear definition of "commonage" because we quickly realised it was a loose term. It is used to describe where lands are either owned or farmed, or even both, by more than one farmer or stakeholder.
One of the main issues we identified was related to optimum stocking rates. The Minister has outlined how undergrazing is a considerable problem. Originally, overgrazing was a significant issue. Previous Government policies to tackle that issue had a knock-on impact and went too far, leading to undergrazing; it was about trying to find a workable balance.
Other issues included the effects on dormancy in preparing a management plan; collective arrangements and co-ownership; the possible impact of imposing collective responsibility, as opposed to a co-operative approach; the rules pertaining to burning to allow for responsible burning as part of a commonage-upland vegetation management plan; and output driven models as an approach to achieving the objectives of commonage framework plans. We are glad that we have made so much progress and delighted that the Department has taken these issues on board.
I acknowledge all of the delegates who gave of their time to submit detailed submissions, come before the committee and give us their valuable insight to designing pragmatic proposals for a workable policy. That is what we are working towards.
It is worth looking at the recommendations of the committee to see how many of them have since been adopted and led to a much more pragmatic approach being dopted. The first recommendation was "that the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine treat the improvement of commonages as a priority in order to remedy environmental damage sustained due to earlier policies, as a means to counter falling farm incomes in deprived areas, and as a measure to promote rural economic and social development". This takes cognisance of and allows for the importance of the 4,500 commonages around the country.
The committee recommended that we identify and assess the effects of dormancy and changing farming methods, with specific reference, for example, to the supplementary feeding of ewes and hoggets, on patterns of under and overgrazing. As I stated, we sought clarity on use of the term "commonage" for the purposes of grants and payments.
The committee noted the compulsory de-stocking requirement which was not a requirement of the good agricultural and environmental conditions, GAECs, for the purposes of single farm payments and that compensation above this amount had to be paid to farmers if the Department wished to impose these de-stocking requirements on them. This matter was highlighted.
We recommended that the management of commonages be promoted through output-driven schemes that took careful account of the insights and requirements of those who owned or managed commonages and to avoid unnecessarily prescriptive approaches - to avoid the one-size-fits-all approach. There is that level of flexibility.
I will focus somewhat on recommendation No. 7, which states: "Commends to the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine the approaches adopted by the BurrenLIFE Project". Representatives of the project gave the committee a detailed and interesting account of its work. I am delighted that the Minister is with us today to enable me to have the opportunity to highlight how impressive is the work of the BurrenLIFE Project. The recommendation continued:
This is an output-driven scheme that has provided considerable environmental, agricultural, social and economic benefits in a way that appears to be efficient and effective. Such schemes will encourage the management of the commonages along co-operative lines so as to reduce the problems caused by dormancy or disagreement among shareholders, and promote the involvement of younger farmers and other young unemployed people.
What I would be looking for is the roll-out of output-driven schemes, over and beyond the BurrenLIFE project. There is considerable potential in this regard. In my area of Kildare South there is one of the most recognisable commonages in the country - the 5,000 acres that make up the Curragh plains. It is an outwash plain of historical and environmental significance to the country.
It is also a 5,000 acre expanse one hour from Dublin that is a phenomenal resource. I passionately feel that we do not use it nearly enough for tourism and recreation.
Examining the model of an output-driven scheme that was achieved in the Burren, it is different to some extent, but there are lessons to be learned from that positive scheme. Those lessons can be used in places such as the Curragh. In that way we can adopt a collaborative approach with the relevant stakeholders, including sheep farmers, to address their concerns. In addition, we must look at the challenges involved in properly maintaining the Curragh and managing it better than heretofore. There are various stakeholders on the Curragh, including the Department of Defence, which is the lead State body with responsibility for the Curragh plains. In that regard, it is positive that our Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine also holds the defence portfolio. It provides us with an unprecedented opportunity to bring various State Departments together in order to work on this matter collaboratively. I have discussed this with the Minister previously and I know he shares my vision and passion for trying to bring about improved circumstances on the Curragh.
As well as having responsibility for the sheep industry, the Minister also deals with the equine sector. The Curragh racecourse is well-known, but there are many stable yards based there too. That situation brings challenges with it in addition to huge potential, particularly for tourism.
Salisbury Plain in England has similarities with the Curragh, including a military base. We could examine that location and try to learn from it. Issues affecting the Curragh include over-grazing, illegal encampments and illegal dumping, but these can be improved through better management. Sheep farmers face challenges including the need for extra sheep grids on the Curragh to ensure the animals do not wander off the plains. Stray sheep can cause problems for both local residents and those passing through.
It should be recognised that the Curragh is hugely beneficial for our country and could be used an awful lot more. It will involve our working together as stakeholders to face those challenges and see how we can deal with them pragmatically, as was done in the Burren. I look forward to working with the Minister and the relevant Departments in order to bring that about.
Recognition is due to the various Ministers who contributed to this report, as well as their departmental officials. They took on board the work that went into the report, which is having a big impact. This report played an integral role in the progression from the draft guidelines to the final version. It has left us facing a much better environment concerning commonages, with a clear plan for the future. I commend the report to the House.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate on the report by the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine on the review of commonage lands and framework management plans. The report was published in mid-2013 and things have moved along significantly since then.
The previous policy was to de-stock commonages and prevent damage. The thinking was that if animals were taken off commonages to stop overgrazing, things would correct themselves. However, following the evidence heard at the joint committee, we have now had to reverse that policy. In many commonage areas land is now being undergrazed and, thus, the policy was not having the desired impact. The idea of the commonage plan now is to graze such lands properly in order to maintain them without their being either under or overgrazed. That is the outcome that everybody wants to achieve.
Since the rural development plan was published, there has been a huge backlash from hill farmers who are concerned about the impact it will have both on them and on commonage farmers. There may be lessons for the joint committee concerning who gave evidence to it before the report was drafted. We should re-examine that matter. Hill farmers across the country feel that the IFA did not represent their views or their case in making submissions about the new rural development plan. The joint committee needs to consider whether we can broaden the scope of whom we talk to and obtain evidence from in order to inform our decisions.
A number of issues that arose over the summer were dealt with by some of the evidence to the joint committee, particularly concerning collective agreements, which have sparked so much controversy. Potential problems were identified by many hill farmers whereby the failure of one party to fulfil an obligation can result in other parties having to go to the trouble or expense of remedying the outstanding matter themselves. Where a conditional payment is prejudiced by the actions of a minority of shareholders, the entire group can face a collective sanction.
Many farmers are concerned about the 50% requirement to enter the GLAS scheme with commonage land. Having met with the implementation committee, the hill farmers' action group felt it had achieved a resolution of this issue. However, it was quite worrying to read that farmers walked out of a meeting in Maam Cross on Tuesday or Wednesday night because they felt the Department was rowing back on what they had agreed with the implementation committee. I ask the Minister to clarify that matter to ensure that farmers are fully aware of what has been agreed. In that way, there will be no misunderstanding. Otherwise it will raise difficult problems for farmers in the next year or two in accessing the GLAS and GLAS plus schemes, as well as sorting out single farm payments.
The implications and future impact of decisions on commonages can be quite technical and complicated. The Minister says that 50% of farmers whose livestock are actively grazing commonage land can enter the GLAS scheme. If they do not reach the 50% figure they can approach the implementation body, but what does that mean? What will the outworkings of that be? If farmers seek clarification on this matter from the implementation body, will they be able to participate because they have made an effort to attain the 50% figure, although it is out of their control?
We talked to the other participants. This is about trying to get a practical solution.
How long is that going to take?
We cannot push ahead with something that the Commission will not accept. That is the reality.
The Deputy without interruption.
The question is how long that will take and how long will the process be drawn out. It will be difficult to manage in a lot of cases.
Farmers who are claiming land and commonage as part of the single farm payment now will be required to graze that land in future in order to retain the payment for that land. That, in turn, will lead to difficulties in commonages and hills because individual stocking requirements will be very small for the relevant commonage. In the overall commonage scheme, it is impossible to manage a small amount of stock in such an area. That point should be re-examined and teased out a bit further.
I do not know what the answer is, but it should not be beyond us to come up with solutions to achieve a workable management plan that is to everyone's satisfaction. That can only be done, however, through consultation and dialogue. The implementation committee is the body to do that and make recommendations to the Department on how to resolve those issues. Those matters need to be addressed so that farmers can buy into the rural development programme and the GLAS scheme, which are necessary to maintain their incomes.
Drawing up the report on the commonage plan was a useful process. We need to examine the consultation process closer for future reports and deal with the issues faced by farmers at present. I ask the Minister to examine the issues associated with the technical aspects and how farmers can comply. He should come up with solutions that satisfy as many people as possible, if not everybody.
Táim buíoch as an seans seo chun cúpla focal a rá maidir leis an tuairisc. I am not a member of the agriculture committee. However, I attended a number of the meetings held at the time in question. They were very interesting and I am sorry I did not get to attend all of them. They were very informative and led to the formulation of this report.
As a former REPS planner, I am very familiar with commonages and the various schemes implemented in recent years, including REPS 1, REPS 2, REPS 3, REPS 4, the AEOS and, latterly, GLAS. As I said at a meeting in Westport, the bar has been raised consistently higher over the years because what were optional measures under REPS 1 suddenly became mandatory requirements under the code of good farm practice, requiring that land be kept in good agricultural condition. That is why standards have to rise. Having spoken to departmental officials during the time of the previous Government, I learned that even getting REPS 4 over the line was difficult because a considerable costing exercise applied to all of the basic measures and extra measures farmers had to take to qualify. It is becoming increasingly difficult to put these schemes by the Commission. That is why GLAS has generated a certain amount of difficulty. The Department has to be cognisant of the requirements of the Commission and has had to ask how it can get a scheme over the line and what needs to be done in that regard, bearing in mind that farmers are being paid. To qualify for the single farm payment and disadvantaged areas schemes for commonages, they have to do that little extra. This is to be expected considering that farmers had to take on additional options when they progressed from REPS 1 to REPS 4.
Regarding the report, I commend all those who have been involved much more than I have been. I include all members of the committee, the Chairman, Deputy Andrew Doyle, and others. On behalf of the IFA in counties Galway and Mayo, I invited a delegation to meet the Minister in departmental offices to discuss a number of options in 2012. This preceded the issuing of the minimum and maximum stocking figures, or perhaps it was just after their publication in the Irish Farmers' Journal. Their publication led to considerable concern about commonages. Farmers felt their payment would drop from €100 to €30, for example, if every farmer was required to hold a minimum number of sheep on a hill. I am thankful that the Department did not send letters on behalf of the National Parks and Wildlife Service. If it had, there would have been war. It held back, but the figures were still published in the Irish Farmers Journal and there was much concern about them.
At the time of the discussion with the IFA, it was said nothing would be implemented without a liaison group. This led to the commonage implementation group, which we are discussing. Let me, first, address a few issues in the report and the proposals being considered by the Department. One is to increase the stocking of sheep on commonage lands as a means of addressing undergrazing. Problems associated with undergrazing have been exacerbated in recent years. Destocking took place, as was right and required, but, unfortunately, there was probably too much of it. In certain areas the fact that older farmers are not farming the hills to the extent that they might results in these problems.
With regard to the prescribed minimum and maximum stocking levels for individual commonages, there is a focus on payments to active farmers. This is a tricky matter because there are commonages that are being actively grazed by a number of farmers but not all of them. I have expressed the view previously that if a commonage on a hill is able to take 300 sheep and there are ten shares, with none dormant and three farmers with 100 sheep each on the hill, that hill is being farmed correctly and being kept in good agricultural condition. That should be the end of the matter. The Minister expressed concern that the Commission would not allow payment for the farmers claiming a single farm payment on the land but who were not actively farming it. I do not know whether this has been clarified, but if the hill is being farmed correctly, that should be the basis of our position on this issue.
Fair play to the Deputy. He is bang on; he hit it in one.
If one is not farming a piece of land, one cannot claim-----
The Minister just does not understand. There are none so blind as those who do not want to see.
If farmers have to increase stocking density – many do and some have been destocked for a period – there is a need for a lead-in period over a number of years. The Minister appreciates that one cannot just go down to Maam Cross and buy 100 ewes or hoggets and put up on a hill; they will wander everywhere unless they are bred there. The stock needs to be bred rather than bought in.
Owing to undergrazing, the issue of burning arises. It is worth noting that the requirements and allowances in the United Kingdom are different from those here. There is an additional six weeks up to the middle of April in the United Kingdom. This could be explored, if only for a short period, be it only for one year or two. Is there any reason we have higher standards than those that apply in the United Kingdom on this issue? Where there is undergrazing, sheep will not be able to return heather to a positive state, regardless of how many there are.
Burren farming was mentioned. I am sorry I missed the presentation by the individuals from the Burren. When the designations were first issued, the National Parks and Wildlife Service, or Dúchas, or whatever it was called at the time, decided it knew what was best. It decided that all cattle had to come down from the hills in the Burren. What happened was that the hazel scrub grew. It took a number of years before the authorities appreciated that the farmers' practice was correct all along. During the early spring the cattle ate the hazel and prevented its growth, which would obviously have an impact on the limestone pavement, flora and fauna. The farmers knew best and that must be accepted in this case also. The best award-winning lowland farmer would not know what to do if asked to farm on top of a hill. It is a quite specialised and different farming system.
Recommendation No. 8 caught my eye. The committee urged the Department to make use of all available funding mechanisms to incentivise farmer-led improvements. It has been argued that schemes such as BurrenLIFE, in conjunction with existing REP schemes and the AEOS, should be open to all commonages where at least 80% of active farmers participate in the scheme. That is the first time I saw the reference to the figure of 80%. Obviously, the Department has been pushing it, but it appeared in the report. Perhaps this was where it felt it could go ahead in terms of GLAS. I am thankful it has rowed back and reduced the figure to 50%. I was at a meeting in Westport during the summer and was the only Government representative at it. It was quite heated, with the heat directed against both the Department and the IFA. I have been in liaison with the Minister and the local IFA representatives to try to sort out some of the issues of concern regarding GLAS.
I did not get to Maam Cross on Wednesday. It was a farmers’ information meeting, rather than a politicians' meeting, which is why I did not go. Other than that, I have no problem attending a public meeting; I have gone to enough of them to defend the Government.
The Deputy was well represented by his colleague, Ms Eileen Mannion.
She was there and I am sure she spoke glowingly of me, as always. I am sorry I missed the meeting, but I contacted a few people who were at it. There has been some concern about this matter. As the meeting broke up at 11.30 p.m., it was time to go home at that stage. Having spoken to planners and farmers, I note there is some concern about the Westport meeting and what was agreed and is now agreed. The most important point is that we get farmers into GLAS in order that they will be paid. The commencement date is early and there is still concern about the management plans. In fairness to the IFA, with which I have been dealing, it has come a long way. Before the summer recess, when we were having debates on GLAS, the position was to have no collective agreement under any circumstance. In the interim, it has moved towards stating it will accept that it can implement collective agreements on getting farmers into GLAS but that there must be a proper lead-in period.
Some of the planners to whom I spoke after their meeting in Westport on Tuesday expressed concerns about the implementation of the scheme and about the number of planners available. Following the meeting in Westport in August, people understood they could apply as an individual, but that over the course of the year they could give an assurance that they would comply with a combined management plan for the commonage. This seems to be the sticking point now. They feel that according to Department officials, this is not the situation and that they must now be included in the commonage management plan first. People also feel they need a lead from the Department in terms of naming a planner for each commonage or getting the Department to draw up the plan for the commonage.
As the Minister said, it would not require significant work to get agreement from farmers on who the planner might be. They have been dealing with different planners over the years which would make it difficult for them to decide on one planner. Perhaps, therefore, the Department could have a role in that. The main concern is the difficulty that exists for commonage farmers who want and need to be part of the scheme to become part of it. I hope the issues relating to GLAS can be ironed out shortly.
I welcome this timely debate. I also welcome the contribution made by Deputy Kyne and hope the Minister listened carefully to what he said.
There is a disaster facing people who live in hill areas, with a massive loss of income facing them. Once again, the Minister has shown total disregard and a total lack of understanding and unwillingness to talk to people who understand what hill farming is about.
That is nonsense. I have spoken to multiple groups of people. The Deputy should stop grandstanding.
Please allow the Deputy continue, without interruption.
The Department's figures indicate that 50% of the farmers who farm commonage lands do not own sheep and that this means that 50% of farmers are not grazing the hills. This is a subject Deputy Kyne would know about and that I know about as a Deputy representing Galway West. The Minister is now telling us that the farmers who are claiming the hill, but who have cattle on the lowland, will not be able to get single farm payment on that hill land. That single farm payment would, effectively, be double their payment on the lowland, which means the gains the Minister mentioned are illusory, like most of the gains he speaks about. Not alone that, they will not be able to get areas of natural constraint, ANC, or disadvantaged areas scheme, DAS, payments on that land.
That is not true. They just have to increase their stocking levels.
In an area like Connemara, this represents approximately 50% of farmers and will take a possible €3 million of ANC, DAS and single farm payments out of Connemara. It will remove €15 million from farmers nationally and will have a huge effect on the economy. Deputy Kyne and I are both arguing that the farmers should be allowed to sort this out among themselves and that as long as farmers make sure the hills are kept in good agricultural condition, it will be their business who puts animals and what animals are put on the hill.
Let us take as an example a commonage of 500 hectares, over 1,000 acres. Let us presume 100 farmers are entitled to that commonage, which allows 5 hectares for each farmer.
That is not the way it works. The Deputy should stop painting a false picture.
The Minister will get his opportunity to respond later. Allow the Deputy continue, without interruption please.
He is painting a false picture. I have a right to interrupt when he is misleading us.
The Minister must wait. He will have his opportunity to respond.
I was at the meeting in Maam Cross and the slides shown to us at that meeting indicated that in that situation a farmer's obligation would be to put 3.3 sheep, say four sheep, on the commonage. If all the farmers must put up four sheep, they will have to chase the four sheep around the 1,000 acres of mountain in order to dip them, shear them etc. In the meantime, those who had significant flocks of 100 or 150 sheep - a viable amount - on the hill, must destock dramatically if other farmers take up the option being forced on them by the Department. Then everybody on the hill will wind up with an unviable flock. This is what the Minister is doing here. Deputy Kyne explained this to the Minister in his gentle way and it is the nub of the issue.
We are not setting maximums, so how will farmers be forced on this?
The Minister is eating into Deputy Ó Cuív's time. Please allow him continue, without interruption.
There is a planning maximum and the Minister knows that. His officials explained that quite clearly at the meeting in Maam Cross. The planned run-up sets the maximums. Furthermore, I am astounded by the number of times the Minister mentioned "undergrazing". He mentioned the causes of undergrazing, but he did not mention the greatest cause of undergrazing, which was not a lack of interest on the part of farmers in putting sheep on the hills, but due to prescriptions from the National Parks and Wildlife Service that widely destocked the hills and prevented farmers from keeping an adequate number of stock on the hills. This was an issue I argued about when in government and I spent days discussing the matter with the National Parks and Wildlife Service. This is the reason there is undergrazing, not that farmers are unwilling to put sheep on the hills.
That is why we are only issuing a guideline figure.
We are all willing to face up to the issue of undergrazing and land abandonment mentioned by the Minister, as long as farmers may, between them, put enough stock on the hills.
The Minister must review this and I believe he can find the wriggle room to do this within the legislation. He must provide that as long as the hills are fully grazed by all of the farmers together, this should be sufficient. Otherwise, he is literally putting his hands in the pockets of the farmers of hill areas.
They are not farming the hills if they have no stock on them.
I have sympathy for the Minister's colleague, Deputy Kyne. When the full import of what the Minister has done and what he, as President in Europe, agreed to for hill farmers is fully understood - by December 2015 - he will then understand that he did not understand the reality of what he was doing. The issue is as serious as that.
I was amused by the Minister saying that farmers "obtain" the sheep. Where are they meant to buy them? Are they to buy them in a mart? If a farmer buys sheep from Gleanntreig, a valley at the back of Cnoc Breac, between Cornamona and Tourmakeady and puts them on a hill in Recess or Maam, the sheep will travel across the mountain to wherever they were born. We all know that. Therefore the only way-----
That is why we have provided a long lead-in time.
I presume I will be given extra time to make up for the interruptions.
There is probably extra time. I ask the Minister to refrain from interrupting.
I explained this issue at the meeting in Maam Cross because the officials did not seem to understand it. The average lambing rate on a hill is approximately 70% and generally half of the lambs born are male and half of them are female. This gives us 35 lambs per 100. Farmers lose 10% of their lambs per annum through natural mortality on hills when we take good years versus bad years, which gives us 25 lambs per 100. As well as this, farmers must replace their cast ewes every year. These ewes are getting too old to survive on the hills and are sold onto the lowlands. This means another ten are gone. Therefore, out of every 100 ewes a farmer has, his net increase in ewe lambs, if he is lucky, is approximately 15 ewe lambs.
From where, therefore, are all the mythical ewes that farmers are going to need to comply with the Minister's great plan going to come? How and from whom are farmers to "obtain" them?
These are questions to which the Minister has not given consideration.
In regard to GLAS, the collective agreement as proposed will not work, and I believe it would be open to legal challenge. It was fascinating to hear officials from the Department say at the meeting the other day in Mount Cross that they are now belatedly seeking legal advice on that agreement. They also said that only 50% agreement is needed to lock-split a commonage. Had they checked with the land commission section of the Department they would know that 100% agreement is needed. Deputy Kyne will be aware of the recently divided commonage in Moycullen. It took 20 years to achieve this because of the Department's insistence that even where people obtained sites and got nominal shares in a commonage, this needed to be legally agreed by everybody. Deputy Kyne might give the Minister the reference of the commonage in question. The Minister will then see that it is not possible to act on majority in a commonage. It has always been the view of the Land Commission and the Department that 100% agreement is required. It is vital that the Department take responsibility, in terms of the legalities and cost, for drawing up the commonage plans for GLAS on each commonage and that it do so in partnership with the local farmers. What I am saying is that the Department should commission, prepare and pay for the plans in partnership with local farmers.
We also found out at the meeting in Mount Cross that if a farmer was to join a commonage through some mythical arrangement in order that he or she could join GLAS next year and if other farmers signed up to AEOS were to sit out the remaining two or three years of their AEOS plan because for one reason or another they did not want to join GLAS next year, when they did choose to do so, they would only be paid under GLAS for the remaining two or three years from the date the first farmer joined. That is what was said at the meeting in Mount Cross. That is totally unfair and will set neighbour against neighbour. A farmer currently in AEOS will not cut off his nose to spite his face and allow another farmer who left REPS to sign up to GLAS, because in doing so he would lose two or three years' payments.
Another amazing statement is that payment under GLAS amounts to €5,000. The payment per hectare is €120. As such, to get €5,000 one would have to have 42 hectares. Farmers with low single farm payments have small farms. Despite what is said, there are few enormous farmers in Connemara. The vast majority of farmers there have small farms.
The Deputy must conclude.
For example, reference was made by the departmental officials to most farmers having only eight hectares, which means they would be paid less than €1,000 under GLAS. The impression that there is €5,000 available does not stack up.
Please conclude, Deputy.
How many hill sheep or cattle farmers are on the commonage implementation body? Following the issuance of a diktat from the Department in respect of stocking levels, without prior consultation with farmers, will farmers, who probably know better than most professional planners who, in the main, grew up on low land farms, be required to pay for the planner to rebut the Department's proposals in relation to the stocking and farming capacity of their own hills?
I commend the Minister on coming to the House today for this timely and important date on the issue of commonages. Today's debate is based on the report of the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine on the review of commonage lands and framework management lands. I commend the Chairman of that committee, Deputy Andrew Doyle, under whose chairmanship that review took place. The volume of work being done by that committee under his chairmanship is testament to his industry.
A number of hearings attended by various stakeholders gave rise to this report, the most pertinent body in that regard being the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. The BurrenLIFE group also gave testimony to the hearings. Obviously, commonages are as important a part of farming in Clare as they are across much of the west of Ireland and in County Kildare. However, commonages are not in any way limited to the Burren. There are many upland commonages close to where I live in east Clare which are affected by the proposals recently announced by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine.
If the evidence from BurrenLIFE taught us anything it is that a prescriptive plan from a governmental organisation, be that the National Parks and Wildlife Service or the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, does not necessarily work and often does not work. Commonages in the Burren have been farmed in a particular way for generations. Those who farm that land have a vested interest in ensuring it is farmed properly. As pointed out by Deputy Kyne, those who farm the commonages in Connemara have a vested interest in ensuring that land is farmed properly and is not under-grazed or over-grazed, and that the potential to farm it is maximised. Farmers who have been doing this for generations know best. What the BurrenLIFE project did was empower those farmers to seek a solution, which they did, that was acceptable to the Department and Europe and worked a great deal better than previous plans introduced by government officials, albeit well-intentioned and well-meaning government officials.
Like Deputies Ó Cuív and Kyne, I propose to focus on the issue of dormancy and what is proposed. The report we are discussing states that the Department was anxious to focus payments under the CFP on active farmers and so help to revitalise rural life in areas where there has been a significant fall-off in the farming population. How this is done is what is at issue. The Minister has interjected a couple of times during this debate to make the point that a commonage without livestock is not being farmed. That is only one interpretation. The Minister appeared to indicate that that interpretation is required under European Union law. I take this opportunity to point to another alternative, a Welsh model, the Glastir Commons 2014 explanatory book, which is expressly approved by the European Union in that there is a European logo and the following title displayed thereon: "The European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development: Europe Investing in Rural Areas". According to this booklet, the objective is to maintain 80% of active graziers on the contract land throughout the contract period. Active graziers are defined as commoners with rights who turn out stock to graze the common land, which is in line with the Minister's proposal; commoners who are not exercising rights of common because they have agreed to withdraw their stock under a management agreement; commoners who have recently ceased to exercise their rights of common because, for example, of control measures during foot-and-mouth disease - tuberculosis would be another example in the Irish context, if one is speaking about cattle rather than sheep; and persons who graze non-registered unenclosed land, defined within the booklet as eligible land to enter the scheme. I am not aware of much non-registered unenclosed land in my constituency. The issue then is those who have a right to the commonage but who withdraw their land as part of a management agreement and whether they can continue to be considered active graziers. The Minister appeared to indicate that they cannot. I would urge that the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine consider the Welsh model in that it would appear that under this model, which appears to have been expressly approved by the European Union, such people are still considered to be active graziers. That is not to say that the people who withdraw their stock under a management agreement-----
They are two separate issues.
Deputy McNamara without interruption, please.
I will elaborate when I am replying.
Is the Minister the next speaker?
The Minister is the next speaker. Is the Deputy going to conclude?
I am speaking before the Minister.
Deputy Doyle is at the very end.
For the purposes of a single farm payment, one must be an active farmer. I am not saying that non-active farmers should be able to claim in respect of a commonage. However, the great majority of farmers who farm commonages, certainly in my constituency in Clare and I believe across most of Ireland, also farm lands that are not commonages and which they own entirely. Even if it is not on a particular commonage, once they are active farmers and engage in best farming practice on the commonage, they can avail of it. As Deputies Kyne and Ó Cuív outlined and as is common sense, if there are 100 farmers with a part share in a commonage, it would not be best farming practice for all of them to keep five ewes up there. It is possibly best farming practice for three of them to keep a large flock of ewes because it ensures that best farming practice is adhered to in that portion of land and that it does not involve having one ewe from 100 different flocks up there every year.
Once somebody is an active farmer somewhere and once best farming practice is adhered to under a grazing agreement, it needs to be examined whether this land is land farmed for the purpose of the single farm payment moreover and whether that could be used to qualify for GLAS or any other scheme the Minister might be minded to introduce in respect of commonages because we must recognise the reality that exists across Ireland. In respect of 100 persons with a share in a commonage, 50 of whom are active farmers, possibly only ten might graze that particular commonage but this does not mean that the 50 active farmers are ensuring that best farming practice is adhered to on that portion of the land in which they have a common share. This must be the central criterion from an agricultural perspective but also from an environmental perspective because part of what the commonages offer is the fact that they are a very important environmental asset in this State. All of our land is not just an asset for those who own and farm it. It is an asset for the broader public and there is an important environmental good to be looked at in making sure that best farming practice is adhered to regardless of whether it is in the Wicklow uplands, Slieve Aughty or the Burren. The Burren is an important tourist resource not because of how it is farmed but rather because of the rare geological conditions that exist there. They are artificial geological conditions brought about by how it is farmed. It is a very delicate balance that must be adhered to. I would be very disappointed to see the Government introducing a plan that might interfere with that or how commonages have been farmed for generations across this country, particularly in the west where commonages are more prevalent.
I apologise as I was unavoidably held up this morning and thank Deputy Heydon for moving the motion. I thank all my colleagues on the committee for the preparation of the report. We published this report on 18 July 2013 and had seven meetings. The rationale behind the report was on foot of those draft guidelines published by the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. To the credit of the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine and others, they did not then issue letters at the time. We said it was very important that we drew up some sort of framework on how best to manage commonages.
First, if one wants to do a commonages plan and if one wants to pay people for doing it, its objectives should be to improve the environmental condition of the commonage beyond what the new CAP has described as good agricultural and environmental conditions. We must draw a distinction between what is first off required under the single farm payments scheme and what it is. In the report, we built in two different levels. Within the rural development programme, there are two different levels which I will address later.
We met on seven occasions. The main issues identified were optimum stocking rates tailored for individual commonages, which means that one size does not fit all; the effects of dormancy on preparing a management plan, which is the potential of not having the ability to get enough people to sign up to an agreement that could make a plan effective to achieve its output and aims; and collective arrangements and co-ownership and the possible impact of imposing collective responsibility as opposed to a co-operative approach, an issue that has been worked on hard by Department officials. I attended an information meeting in Glendalough last night attended by some 30 people. The meeting was attended by senior principal officers and seven or eight Department officials. They gave a very full and comprehensive outline and explanation, answered many questions and stayed back until everybody was happy that their concerns were listened to and explanations were given. It was positive. Anyone who was there will say it. People have concerns but they were mainly explained. One issue that was raised many times in respect of Wicklow was burning and the burning rules. A gentleman at the meeting manages some of the grouse areas. They said that they had one last week in the past four years when they could effectively burn within the prescribed period. The Department officials at least seemed very anxious and positive towards extending the burning time period. We need to engage with the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht to get that achieved.
The other issue was output-driven models. I will go through the recommendations of the report. There are a couple of key points and queries that came from the meeting last night. We said that the term "commonage" needs to be defined. Much of my locality in the Wicklow uplands is national parkland. People graze on what is known as old collops and have rights attached but they are not part of their folio. They have rights to graze but there are limits on them so some people can only graze up to a maximum level anyway. It has worked fairly well as long as there were enough people active and therein lies an issue that might need to addressed. It relates to people having a maximum number they graze yet if there are not enough of the other people who are active, they cannot get to the overall minimum numbers required by 2018.
In recommendation five, we said that commonages should be managed by the mechanism of output-driven schemes which maximise the specialised knowledge of those who own the commonages. GLAS reflects that particular recommendation in so far as it is an output-driven scheme. The next recommendation is that a one-size-fits-all approach should be avoided and that each scheme should be based on and address the unique characteristics of each individual commonage. From what I gathered from last night, that is exactly what will happen. No maximum is set until the management plan is agreed. The minimum is the minimum of one ewe per 1.5 hectares. After that, there will be each ewe equivalents for each individual farmer who has until the end of 2015 to increase their minimum stocking rate.
In respect of Deputy Ó Cuív's comments, I live in an area where many farmers farm with an upland reach. They have a lot of sheep they keep on commonage. They breed them for breeding sale. They keep many more sheep than they would ever use for replacements and store male sheep, which is mainly the other side to it, are secondary in many ways. They are very important but they do not breed animals as terminal to fatten them. More and more farmers do so nowadays.
It has been a problem since the outbreak of foot and mouth disease when we were not allowed to sell sheep directly into Northern Ireland. We would have had it in the breeding season at this time of year. Blessington, Baltinglass, Carnew and others had them. There were 10,000 sheep in a sale, most of which were breeding stock. There is a special show sale in Blessington tomorrow. The sheep for sale are breeding stock. There will also be store lambs.
Buyers from the Cooley Mountains, the midlands and elsewhere come to Wicklow. It is the same in the west. One has to understand that it is not the same as having a lowland flock where breeding replacements are bred in the same way as replacements in a dairy herd, and the rest of the product is for fattening. It is a different type of sheep farming and people who do not know about sheep farming do not understand that.
Deputy McNamara referred to Burren life. It is the second level. The locally led environmental schemes are an addition to this and recognise the value of the Burren, in fairness to the Department and Minister, and there is an extension of that initiative. We all hope places will qualify. The bar is set a little bit higher in those sorts of schemes. People in the Burren say species rich grassland is their kilo of beef. The Wicklow Uplands Council has healthy managed vegetation in the uplands. That is the output for which people are paid to achieve. Payment is given to those who own the land and they are allowed to set the plan. That was the key message from the Burren. Locally led environmental schemes will achieve that. They are really welcome.
We have discussed GLAS. There is a requirement for 50% of farmers to agree, but if that cannot be achieved the implementation committee can be contacted for a consideration and recommendation. The point was made that if only one farmer remains on commonage and cannot qualify for GLAS because more than one farmer must be involved, he or she can send his or her submission to the implementation committee and, more than likely, it would be approved for the scheme.
We have a particular issue with deer in Wicklow, of which the Minister is well aware. Part of the problem is that the vegetation on the hills has become overgrown, too stemmy and is no longer attractive, and as a result the deer have become cute and lazy. They are moving to lower ground and competing on lowland domestic inside ground for grass and vegetation. People in the National Parks and Wildlife Service need to be absolutely convinced of the problem.
Deputy, you can make your contribution after the Minister.
I have two quick queries. One concerns commonages on national parkland. The National Parks and Wildlife Service tends to lease them on ten month rather than five year leases. There was an agreement of five years under REPS. My second query concerns eligible land which is deemed ineligible, but is recoverable. If one is in a commonage management plan next year, rather than have to stack and lose the benefit of convergence, if one had signed up to a commonage management plan which would see the area recover and become eligible a derogation would be given.
I will try to address some of the questions, queries and comments made. On a general point, we are trying to introduce a scheme in the case of GLAS and qualification criteria for a single farm payment that is as flexible as possible and can adapt to different types of farming in different parts of the country. To say that, for whatever reason, such as from where I come, I do not understand commonage farming is not true because I have spoken to a lot of commonage farmers in regard to this. A team of people is putting together these proposals. I do not sit down at my desk and write them. I stand over them because I am the boss, but people from the west, the north west, the south west, the midlands and everywhere else sit around a table. They try to understand and anticipate the problems and pressures affecting farmers and make sure we can bring as many farmers as possible into the schemes, while at the same time being consistent with the rules.
I probably should not have interrupted Deputy Ó Cuív as much as I did, but I do not want to be characterised as something I am not. We have compromised and amended proposals because of the public consultation process. We have spoken to people at lengthy meetings to try to understand specific problems and tailor solutions to solve them. We are still trying to do that in public meetings around the country in various places from Wicklow to Donegal, Galway, west Cork, Kerry, Mayo and so on. We will continue that process. I am not in the business of locking anybody out of anything if we can accommodate him or her.
There are historical traditions in terms of how commonage areas are farmed and shareholders interact, and they share the burden differently in terms of who does what. That is why we have said there will be flexibility for some farmers who have a lot more stock than others per hectare or commonage. There is, in our view, a requirement that farmers have to be making some agricultural contribution to commonage in order to qualify as a farmer on that piece of land. For a piece of land to be eligible, the person claiming payment on it has to show he or she is participating in an agricultural practice.
They do not for flatlands.
As the Deputy knows, eligibility payments are paid per hectare, not per person.
On a flatland they do not.
There is no issue on a flatland or lowlands because they are farming.
Exactly, because the system made it nice and handy for flatlands. If I have 100 acres of the best land in the country, all I have to do is get a contractor in-----
Deputy, allow the Minister-----
-----do nothing, stay at home all year and get two lots of silage off it. That is my farming done. I do not have to participate actively.
The Minister has only one minute remaining.
We have introduced, as the Deputy knows and welcomed, a very low stock rate in relative terms. It is one ewe per 1.5 hectares. In other words, we have tried to get everybody in as best we can.
That is the minimum level to qualify as an active farmer. One can go way beyond that.
The Deputy can take this up again in Question Time.
I will not interrupt again.
Thank you very much.
When this is over the Minister should sit down in a quiet corner with Deputy Kyne, who understands this perfectly, and listen carefully to his explanation. He knows, as do I, the reality of the situation. I regret that he did not do that a long time ago. Deputy Kyne is very knowledgeable.
Deputy, you cannot make a speech.
I agree with Deputy Ó Cuív that Deputy Kyne is very knowledgeable on this area. I have sat down with him on multiple occasions to tease through these issues, introduce compromises and changes and discuss the workings of the implementation group and how they may help farmers. I continue to do so on a daily basis. I have been to Deputy Ó Cuív's constituency with Deputy Kyne. We walked across some of the commonage lands. The idea that I do not know the reality of how they are farmed is not true. As is the case in Wicklow, as we heard from Deputy Doyle, there are different types of management systems and hill farming on commonages. The system of hill farming is very different to lowland agriculture.
We are trying to adapt to this and have a non-party political implementation group that is about talking to farmers about the practicalities of getting into GLAS or ensuring they qualify for single farm payments or ANCs - disadvantaged area payments as they know them. We can then move from one CAP to another while ensuring as many farmers as possible benefit. That is what we will continue to do.
The 50% participation requirement started out as an 80% requirement for priority access to GLAS. By the way, the joint committee signed up to the principle of having at least 80% of active farmers being part of a scheme, like, for example, the Burren scheme in order to be able to draw down. The principle of collective responsibility is one on which we all agree. We have made it very clear that to be credible with the Commission, at least half the people involved or half the land in the commonage area must be participating or included in a plan. Where land is being farmed in commonage, there is a shared responsibility. If there are practical reasons we cannot get 50% of the land or the people involved, we have an implementation group which will go into that commonage, speak to the shareholders and try to put a solution in place that can work for farmers. We will do this in a way that is inclusive, rather than to try to lock people out because they cannot meet exacting criteria. We are introducing significant flexibilities, responding to farming organisations and individual farmers and, in particular, people like Deputy Seán Kyne, who have been repeatedly raising these issues with me. That is why we have a group going around the country to explain how this will work and the flexibilities.
I genuinely have an open mind on this issue. If we can put better solutions in place, I have an open mind about changing. I will not dig my heels in because I do not want to backtrack. If there is a solution that works and that we can apply, we will look at it. I have no interest in doing anything that locks out those who should be getting supports and payments because we want to keep them on and interested in the land. At the same time, I have to ensure a finite resource goes to farmers who are actively farming the land when and where possible. If we do not do this, the Commission will come and ensure it will happen.
I thank the joint committee for a very useful report which has helped to shape much of the policy we have formulated.
With the agreement of the House, Deputy Andew Doyle will conclude the debate. Is that agreed? Agreed.
I thank my colleague, Deputy Martin Heydon, for stepping in at the beginning of the debate and all Members who spoke for their kind words. Our committee has demonstrated that committees can work in unison and be productive. There is not much point in being here unless one can be genuinely productive. I commend all of the members of the joint committee and thank them for their co-operation through many reports.
The report before the House was published in July 2013. The CAP had just been agreed and we had started our work before that. Pillar 2 and the rural development programme had not, however, been agreed at that stage. We did our work against a backdrop of draft guidelines from the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht which we believed would not achieve their intended outcome - better commonages in better condition. We set about identifying the reasons and concerns and coming up with a set of solutions by way of recommendations to achieve the intended outcome. Where we have got with what we have so far today is an attempt to do this which is better and more practical.
The report's recommendations note that a one-size-fits-all approach does not work. We have achieved a solution in so far as each commonage will be dealt with under a commonage management plan. It will be a laborious process, but rather than have a diktat from a central authority, we have a minimal stocking rate for the minimal payment, after which it will be up to each plan and the participants therein to agree matters. It is very important. We recommended that commonages be managed by output driven schemes. GLAS is an output driven scheme and it is being fine-tuned to make it effective and workable for as many people as possible and to be acceptable to the European Commission. It is worth bearing in mind that the submission has not, to the best of my knowledge, been signed off on finally by the Commission, although one hopes it will be.
We identified the BurrenLIFE scheme as a model. It shows that one size does not fit all as under the REPS, the requirement to have all stock off the land for the winter - bovines in that case - would have damaged the environment. We became aware of this famously with regard to hazel overgrowth on the Burren. People reacted in that case. There are plenty of other examples around the country and things will take a bit of work. I have seen this myself. Deputy Martin Heydon is interested in doing something on the Curragh, a landscape that is unique in Europe. Certainly, that is worth considering, although I caution the Deputy that a great deal of hard slogging and knocking of heads together is required. Issues such as burning and, in County Wicklow, the deer culling season and how they are managed are important. Practical changes must be made to place commonage in good agricultural and environmental condition and beyond.
I welcome what the Minister said at the end of his contribution to the effect that he is open minded. His intention and that of his officials is that this will be a two-way street. It is certainly the feeling I got last night from the departmental officials who were in Glendalough. They took on board some of the concerns raised. I highlighted two earlier, including terms of leases of national park land and how ineligible land that can be made eligible can be included in year one. This debate has raised further matters for consideration. As a joint committee, we could bring in Mr. Joe Healy from the implementation group following on from this process to outline his position. It would be a good idea to do so. I have met him a couple of times and he is considered to be an objective and fair person. He must be because the microscope will be on him. Certainly, that would be a worthwhile process in which to engage.
The joint committee has made its recommendations and we can all take some satisfaction from the fact that much of the reflection in the meantime in devising a rural development programme with the commonages aspect to it has taken on board much of what we said. In particular, the idea that one size does not fit all has been acknowledged. We could not have implemented a commonage plan on a national basis. Every commonage is different and has different dynamics and personalities and must be dealt with in a certain way.
An issue that came up and which was raised in this debate involved planners. Teagasc has advertised for planners and it will not have enough. Where there are three farmers on a commonage, two with Teagasc and one with a private planner for the AEOS, there must be a coming together. It may be the case that Teagasc will sub-contract out where people can agree and assign planners. That might make matters simpler. It might be a small issue, but it could delay getting plans off the ground. I also note that if 25,000 or 30,000 applications are accepted next year, more than that number will be submitted.
I am not sure if the Minister has an idea as to a closing date for applications under GLAS, but on a practical level, a mid-year closing date would be difficult. At the same time, getting everything processed and approved by the end of the year to enable some payments to be made by the end of next year will be a challenge.
There is a good deal of work to do. We need to get sanction first from the Commission, but if there is anything the committee can do with regard to GLAS or the locally led environment schemes, the members will be more than happy to do that.
I thank the members. We were drawn on this almost a year ago but the sub-committee was on a fact-finding mission the same day. We are delighted that we had the opportunity to present the report.