The context for the commonage issues include: the review of commonage framework plans; review of the Common Agricultural Policy involving single farm payments, disadvantage area payments, agri-environment schemes and support for collective action; the habitats directive for Natura 2000 commonages, 60% of which are Natura commonages, GAEC under cross compliance, requires no damage to the soil; and eligibility issues for SPS and agri-environmental schemes in connection with undergrazing. The context also includes: low returns to upland farming from the market; poor demographics, for example, lack of succession is a concern; issues of collective farming; importance and sensitivity of the environment of the uplands; and substantial risk of land abandonment. The habitats and the landscape in the uplands have been created through farming and require farming and will ensure the viability of rural communities.
The current payments to farmers with commonage include the single payment scheme, disadvantaged area scheme, REPS and AEOS. Payment is based on individual commonage share and is paid on a per hectare basis similar to non-commonage land. Overgrazing of sites, pictures of which we have seen in the past, has arisen in response to coupled payments, sheep premium and disadvantaged area. Undergrazing, which is a potential issue for the future, has arisen in response to the decoupling of payments, social change and low market prices.
When I look at a commonage I have a vision of appropriate conditions but do farmers have the same vision? We must be clear on what we want to see if we are to have any chance of succeeding. It goes back to Teagasc advisers being involved with dairy farmers talking about grass budgeting and grass measurement. However, it is only when farmers go out in a group and visit each other's farms and assess fields, that they understand that it begins to make sense - similarly for the use of commonage lands. We talk a good deal but is everybody clear on what we want to see?
Commonage milestones include the introduction of REPS in 1994, designation of degraded commonages and poor uptake by shareholders between 1994 and 1998. In November 1998 the national commonage plan insisted on 30% destocking for farmers in six relevant counties with large amounts of commonage as an interim measure until the individual commonage framework plans were prepared in 1999 to 2003. In October 2002, farmers received letters notifying them of preliminary calculations of permitted sheep numbers in 2003. That was the beginning of destocking.
The commonage framework plans focused on destocking. The plan had variable outcomes such as a reduction in overgrazing - recovery takes time to get to the favourable conservation status and in the meantime undergrazing has emerged as an issue. The review of the commonage framework plans mentions a sustainable stocking rate. From experience of blanket bogs in similar conditions, there is an average sustainable stocking rate for undamaged wet heaths and dry heaths and undamaged grasslands. The way the sustainable stocking rate works is that a commonage will have a mixture of those habitat types within the same townland. If it is half blanket bog, half wet heath or whatever the stocking rate is averaged out. It is a paper figure and is a good start. For each LPIS parcel basis there is a minimum and a maximum stocking rate. Teagasc is supportive of this principle as a start. The challenges include local circumstances. Grazing patterns in every townland will vary on the commonage, some will graze four weeks, some will graze for 52 weeks of the year. There will be different stock types - sheep and cattle of various ages. It is difficult to get the grazing pattern right.
Another challenge is the lead-in time for increasing stock. It is difficult for a hill sheep farmer to keep more than 10% of his or her own breeding ewes in a year and it is difficult to bring in outside sheep as they have to be bred on the mountain. Forcing usage can cause more harm than good. It will probably not be done right if farmers are forced to put up a small number of sheep. I spoke to some farmers recently who told me it is not worth chasing 20 or 30 sheep around a commonage.
It can be difficult to put up only a small number. On the other hand, there are active farmers on those commonages who may be willing to take up the slack. This is the issue of getting up to the maximum. It is probably easier to come down to the minimum - one takes them off. With the under-grazing issues and trying to get them up to the maximum, it is not something that can be done overnight for those issues.
With the varying usage of commonage by individual farmers, as I explained, a co-operative approach to management is widely seen as the most effective management mechanism to achieve positive outcomes. A co-operative approach is different from collective responsibility. The problem with collective responsibility is there is a significant risk of fear of loss of individual payments due to the failure of collective agreement. There is a fear of unjust penalties, for example, that one would be penalised because another man on the commonage over whom one has no control does something else. This is a genuine fear.
The policy instruments will need to provide incentives for a collective approach. It requires significant effort from farmers and will require outside support, including professional support. Achieving a co-operative approach is not trivial. It will require time and professional input with associated transaction costs as well as incentives for farmers. The challenge is how to deliver sufficient reward for effective management at individual farmer level and collectively, and how Common Agricultural Policy payments can support group initiatives to deliver better outcomes than individual support.
There is experience from the UK that shows it is possible to achieve a collective approach with economic incentives through commonage measures in agri-environment schemes. I was involved in a European-funded trip, organised by the European Forum on Nature Conservation and Pastoralism and IT Sligo, in May last where we visited England and Scotland to observe the issues there. Many of the problems are similar. At present in England, 74% of common land is in collective agreement in agri-environment schemes. It is a significant part of their income. Some 15% of the upland farmers' income comes from the agri-environment schemes.
Wales is an interesting case. The current figure for involvement in collective agreement is 32%, but it is expected, with farmers expressing an interest for this current year's scheme, that it will rise to 75%. In recent years, this has jumped from 2%. The interesting point is that, for fear that they would not get involved in this, there were 18 commons development officers appointed on a short-term contract basis using funding from the technical assistant fund, and that has been seen as having an impact. We found it interesting. It would be interesting for Irish farmers and policymakers to visit and talk to their Welsh counterparts to note the good points.
The policy opportunities to address the challenges of which we have spoken are target commonage measures, reward delivery of high-quality environmental goods, and support for upland management, for example, through groups such as discussion groups and farmers' groups and through the farm advisory system. As I alluded to, there is a key role for education. Often we speak of what we want and we do not always have the same understanding. Education is very important.
Another challenge is improved public awareness of the public good from upland farming. It is important that farmers are conscious of the value of this and that outsiders show that it is important. It is because it is common that it is not appreciated. It is seen as a dumping ground or wasteland. We really need to increase its profile and highlight the benefits. Another challenge is improving the viability of rural communities.
The public good benefits of sustainable management of the uplands will deliver sustainable agricultural production; no land abandonment; improved environmental outcomes for bio-diversity, water quality, climate change, landscape and cultural features; reduced risk of fire, which is not a minor issue; support for recreational use and rural tourism; and control of the spread of invasive species. Sustainable management will deliver these and will deliver upland flora and fauna. The figures show there are 34 butterfly species, a quarter of which are under threat of extinction. They all need different habitats. The ones in the upland, such as the marsh fritillary, needs the devil's bit scabious and the purple moor grass for food and different aspects. There are 101 bee species in Ireland. Forty-two have declined by 50% since 1980 and three have become extinct. The uplands can deliver their species. Farming is also needed to maintain the uplands.
We must learn from the experience of others, move slowly, bring farmers along with us, which shows the importance of education, and adopt a flexible approach to get the desired result. In the presentation, the picture including the child is not without a message.