I am happy to explain it again if necessary and I understand what the Deputy is getting to. Maybe the examples will help. According to the guidance to which we are working, when something is greater than 10% we have to recognise it in the LPIS database. The tolerance at which we will give the benefit of the doubt to the farmer is 10% of scattered scrub.
The next parcel of scrub was found by a Commission audit. The application was 100% ineligible but that is a very serious case. The following photograph with the furze probably reflects what happens in a lot of land, even in flat country, where it is hard to keep it under control. The field in the distance is fully clear but on the field in the foreground there is furze. To address the Deputy's point, the yellow point is 100% but if we include a lot more of the furze area it might drop to 60% or lower. If we were to omit the whole thing it would be less than 10%. The guidance given to us is that where there is intense scrub within an area and it is more than 10% of a proposed red line area, it is ineligible.
The next photograph is of more open country which an inspection found had no access. Given that it is a marshy area, no cattle or any other animal chose to go in. The area has a lot of scrub so it was a 100% rejection. The next one is of a fairly significant level of scrub near the upper ends of the scale. If in this parcel it is deemed that the level of scrub exceeds 70% then, under the guidance, we are obliged to deem it ineligible. We recognise that there is some grazing and the Commission wants the threshold to be at 50% but we are still arguing about that and we are hoping to successfully defend our position. We have indicated our intention to go with this threshold and, to date, we have not heard to the contrary but, as members are aware, all these things are ultimately decided in the audit procedure and we are all aware of the sanction that has been proposed against Ireland. We have to recognise that in how we implement the procedures on the ground.
The next topic is heather, which is a common ground cover in lots of marginal areas. Members will see tall woody heather in the background. This is one of my taller colleagues; he is 6 ft. 6 in. and he is there to give some indication of the height. We deem this to be ineligible as it is not being kept in a condition that any one would accept as suitable either for grazing or cultivation. The next photograph is of heather which is eligible. We can see certain areas, however, where the heather is getting a bit taller so we would caution the applicant that if they had heather beginning to grow into the woody stage it would need management to prevent it becoming ineligible.
In contrast, the following photograph shows perfectly eligible herbaceous species in the distance, made up of a variety of types, including heather, The heather, however, is not the predominant ground cover in this parcel so there is no difficulty from our point of view and it is 100% eligible. The next photograph, however, is a little bit further from the last but one photograph. We would be a little bit concerned that it will get into this state shortly and one could argue that it is already becoming woody in the distance.
We would caution applicants as to the importance of evaluating every one of their plots before they make a submission. We have tried to explain this in a picture instead of trying to describe it in words. Mr. Smyth spoke about us trying to describe what is required rather than telling members how to get there and that is the change we referred to in the context of easing up. We took criticism - I took some myself - for not telling people how many cattle will achieve A, B or C but everyone is different so we have chosen to go the descriptive route and to tell farmers what is the requirement. It is their choice as to how they meet the requirement but hopefully it makes it easier for farmers to have confidence that they will meet the requirements when submitting their application.
The next photograph, which I took myself, is of open commonage. There are plenty of sheep but unfortunately I did not get them in the picture. I did, however, get the farmer on his quadbike managing his sheep and keeping the land in good condition. As far as we are concerned, it is fully eligible for the purposes of drawing down payment. It would be an easy inspection; in, out, gone.
I took a winter photograph here. Maybe in the background things are different but, going by what is visible in this plot, there are content and happy sheep so it is fully eligible. The final photograph shows heather to reflect the reality that the marginal country farmer has a few sheep but keeps his land in a condition for grazing and, if he wants, for cultivation. The next photograph shows rushes. I will put it on hold until later on but I can tell members that it is eligible.
The next photographs are in Wicklow and show ferns. When auditors look at ferns, they get very concerned as they always give the impression of 100% ground cover and should immediately be declared ineligible. We argue with the auditors that one must know the sequence of how ferns grow in Ireland. In photograph No. 1 sheep are grazing happily and contentedly and there is plenty of grass in the part members can see, notwithstanding the large amount of shade coming from the heather. That is in late spring but in late summer we see that the ferns are dying off and the percentage ground cover by the grass is close to 100% - perhaps 96% or 97% - even though there seems to be a lot of fern. I went back to the same site in winter and it is obviously being grazed by sheep. The ferns have been killed off and there is, in essence, 100% grass cover.
That was sufficient for there to be no need for a reduction for farms in that case. However, in the next case, which will be the contrast, and we meet quite a lot of this, nothing, including animals, penetrates it and keeps it in a state suitable for grazing. We have no choice in the case of the second picture but to consider that totally ineligible to draw down payment.
The first picture shows a Tipperary farm. The farmer has cattle out grazing and has chosen to top as well as graze. The land is in very good condition. It is his routine practice to try to keep rushes under control on this type of land. As far as we are concerned, after two seconds in the field it was clear he was fully eligible from a land parcel point of view.
In contrast, I wanted to give some indication of the height to which rushes can grow. I was surprised they would grow so high, but another picture shows they are close to five feet high. There is no evidence of anything going on in the parcel. We have no choice as there is no evidence of access. I am sure no one would argue about the fact that it is 100% ineligible. The third picture is typical of many of the marginal areas around the country in the west, north west, south west, south and many other parts of the country. In my county, Offaly, there is plenty of land in this condition. We can see quite clearly that the farmer is making the best of the land he has. He is grazing it down and there is plenty of evidence that things are going on. We consider that to be 100% eligible and do not even demand it be topped. It is a choice.
As one becomes familiar with certain areas, one finds rush will become intense within a parcel of land. The discretion is open to the farmer to bring that into eligibility status simply by topping it and carrying out the so-called agricultural activity or whatever. I can appreciate that people do not want a flail harvester or topping machine dealing with this, but we have no difficulty where a genuine effort is being made to farm the land in the condition it is in and we deem that to be eligible.
I will try to give a wider view of the picture I skipped. It shows power lines running across the land and would typify land in many parts of the country. There are two sheep and we see evidence that the farmer has been doing work. The grass has been grazed on and the farmer is not allowing a mat of grass to be created. As far as we are concerned, he is 100% eligible. It is to be hoped, because we take a little bit of criticism, that this clarifies things in terms of dealing with rush and the idea that all rush is banned, and we also hope it makes it understandable from the point of view of farmers.
I will move on to other areas with which we deal. Bog is an interesting feature and is the focus of many difficulties in SPAs and SACs and the protection thereof. When we talk about bog, we are talking about the conventional understanding of bog. The first picture shows a typical bog, where a family cuts turf or it is cut commercially or otherwise, as in the second picture. We have all the variations in terms of organic matter and soil. We are not including raised bog or the bog on mountains in terms of ineligible bog. Rather, we include conventional bog cut for turf.
The picture on the right-hand side shows high organic matter ground, which I would say, if I knew the position, is probably bog. In essence, it is waterlogged and absolutely nothing is happening. It is probably too wet even to consider cutting turf. It is to be hoped there is no difficulty in terms of the interpretation that the bog would not be eligible to draw down payment, recognising blanket peat on mountains, be it surface comprising a few inches or one or two sleans or turf being cut, which probably does not happen as much now as did in the past. Bog on commonages on mountains is not included.
Other types of land include an inaccessible wet area. From the picture we can see that nothing is happening and there is a mat of grass. The land is not in any condition that one would consider suitable and does not meet the requirement in the legislation of being suitable for grazing and cultivation. The second picture hidden behind the Natura one shows a marshy area where nothing has happened in terms of accessibility. I included that one to reflect what we said earlier. The requirements under the SAC or SPA state that one does not cut until a certain time of the year. Once a farmer complies with any environmental conditions applied by the National Parks and Wildlife Service, that does not make land ineligible. It is to be hoped that we have clarified that, on the Natura side, there should not be a difficulty.
In most cases, for most of the conditions I have checked in terms of SACs and SPAs farmers are free to continue to farm in the traditional fashion. The things which are restricted include extracting rock, putting in drainage or applying organic fertilisers. Normally, traditions have not been interfered with too much, except that there can be delays if one wants to cut in the Shannon Callows and that sort of thing. A typical picture in the background shows land on a mountain that is fully eligible. There is evidence of cattle and sheep, and maybe it is lower commonage, but I am not familiar with where the picture was taken.
I included the picture on the left as a warning to all of us and perhaps as a warning of what can happen given the policies of the past. I am given to understand that picture reflects the amount of time it takes to recover land. In this case, I was told locally that the land was overgrazed during the reference period. The picture shows the effect of taking out ground cover. When ground cover is removed from certain soils with a high level of organic matter, the soil is not able to recover because of what happened previously. I presume it was overgrazing. Erosion was still happening when the picture was taken two months ago. It is a warning to us that we cannot consider the land to be eligible. The land is not in a condition we consider suitable for grazing. I understand the farmer is trying to recover the land, but it is almost impossible.
The last picture probably speaks for itself. Dr. Smyth has highlighted the recent concerns about burning. The focus was put on our Department in terms of how the issue can be addressed. I included the picture, which is of a place not too far from Dublin, as a shot that is typical of the problem. We have to be careful in terms of what we implement now to achieve the objectives. It is to be hoped we do not have to sanction too many people and that the warning will go out. There is a perception that burning makes land eligible. If it does the damage that overgrazing did, we have to be careful that we do not create a larger problem.
We all hear in the media about the damage done by burning, not from the point of view of getting rid of heather but from the point of view of biodiversity. While something might grow back within a number of months, biodiversity may be affected for years. I have heard some people say that the damage is measured in multiples of years. It is a warning we have to convey to farmers.
I thank the committee for its attention and will try, along with my colleagues, to answer questions as best we can. I hope I have been fairly clear in trying to explain the background to our booklet. As Dr. Smyth said, we only recently had it cleared and I again apologise for the delay. It is to be hoped we have presented a document that is fairly easy to understand from a farmer's point of view.