I am chairman of the IFDL. I am here today with IFDL committee members Mr. Kenneth Fitzgerald, Mr. Morris Flynn and Mr. Sean Kelly. The IFDL was formed in August 2014 and in the interim it has been highlighting the disadvantageous position farmers have found themselves in since our lands became designated in either special protected areas, SPAs, special areas of conservation, SACs, or national heritage areas, NHAs.
These lands have been selected as important sites that may ensure that some of our endangered birds and habitats are sustained for future generations to enjoy. This is something we should all embrace. However, since lands in Ireland have been designated under EU directives there has been one clear loser, the owner of these lands - the farmer. Back in 1992, the Burren was designated a special area of conservation, SAC, with little or no engagement, consultation or consent from farmers. Through the 1990s and early 2000s large tracts of land, predominantly across the western regions, were designated SACs and specially protected areas, SPA. In 2007-2008 a further 170,000 ha of land across nine counties was also designated for the protection of the hen harrier, an annex 1 bird. In total almost 15% of the Republic of Ireland has been designated under European directives. Some of our most picturesque hills, bogs, precious wetlands, rivers and productive agricultural land have been restricted, decimating the economic opportunity that was available prior to the designation occurring.
Ireland Inc. has benefited to the tune of billions of euro over the decades from tourism, iconic imagery, the natural capital of these lands and, furthermore, through the valuable carbon sinks that these lands provide naturally.
The farmer, not the creator of these important lands but certainly the protector, guardian and custodian of their habitats, has been burdened by these designations, without access to meaningful compensatory solutions. Many generations have come and gone but all have passed on these lands with pride in their life's work to the next generation - a freehold, an asset, for the next generation to carry on, or to sell to seek a better quality of life or more profitable land, something previous generations may not have been able to achieve because of financial circumstances. It allowed farmers to walk into their local bank with a deed in one hand and using the other to firmly shake the bank manager's hand, at least knowing they could look the bank manager in the eye because they had something of value to negotiate with. Sadly this is no longer the case.
Depending on the type of designation and where it is situated, various degrees of devaluation have occurred. Farmers who have large amounts of land designated have suffered the worst but most have been disadvantaged or devastated by land devaluation. Their plans for the future, their plans for retirement and the hope of going into a bank with something tangible in their hand are gone. These farmers are no longer able to borrow against the deeds of their land because bank managers see no value or opportunity in mature designated areas. Unlike other farmers who take this for granted, as they should, regardless of what comes around the corner, they can leverage the value of their deeds against borrowings. However, this is no longer the case for designated areas throughout the country.
Farmers might want to invest in their business, or a medical emergency may occur, and they may need to sell a site. A death in the family may change everything. A farm that was once a valuable asset held with pride and care is now an asset that can be neither sold nor developed to take advantage of the economic opportunities that are available to neighbours who are lucky enough to escape the heavy-handed pen of the National Parks and Wildlife Service. This is not only devastating farmers but also their families and their communities.
I will use an urban comparison of an industrial estate with two identical factories. One has suddenly become restricted while the other is free to develop, expand, upgrade and adapt to the changing economic environment. One will progress and in the event the owner needs to sell it, the owner will receive the market value for the business while the restricted business will ultimately close because of the bureaucratic and time-consuming nature of asking permission to carry out basic, necessary works over and above what the neighbouring business is required to do. The restricted business may not be allowed to develop or modernise and this will ultimately lead to the loss of jobs, revenue and local business and a loss to the local economy unless the full cost of the restrictions is paid to the business that is restricted - in effect, restoring the equilibrium of economic opportunity.
Among the most devastated areas are the six hen harrier SPAs involving some 3,760 farmers across nine counties, namely, Clare, Cork, Galway, Kerry, Laois, Limerick, Monaghan, Offaly and Tipperary. As to why these farmers have suffered so badly, pressure came from Europe in the form of the birds case. Ireland was threatened under the judgment with fines because it did not carry out the designation process to protect certain species, including the hen harrier.
In November 2007, farmers were given a three-month window to object to the designation but even if the farmer in question was to object, there was no guarantee the appeal would be successful. Some farmers objected; more did not. Most farmers were happy with the designation because of the strength of the comprehensive and robust assurances that were offered. Farmers were offered a compensation scheme, access to afforestation and a devaluation rebalancing solution.
After the window of appealing the designation process had expired, the aforementioned scheme was launched but many barriers to entry appeared that had not previously been mentioned. As a consequence, only 370 of the 4,000 farmers managed to access the scheme. The scheme was suspended less than two years after it was launched. The payments through the scheme were €350 per hectare for the first 40 ha and a reduced graduated payment thereafter.
Some 90% of the farmers who sat in community centres in 2007 to hear the National Parks and Wildlife Service outline the scheme have not received any compensatory solutions over and above access to schemes that were mainstream and open to non-designated farmers up until the green, low-carbon, agri-environment scheme plus, GLAS+, payments, in the very last days of 2016 and, in many cases, into 2017. Schemes such as the rural environment protection scheme, REPS, the agri-environment options scheme, AOES, and GLAS were all mainstream schemes and available to all farmers regardless of whether they had designation or not. As a result, these had no positive effect on the valuation of land.
Many farmers believed this would all change after a commitment from the then Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Simon Coveney, on 23 October 2015. He stated that a new locally led scheme would be targeted at farmers with large tracks of hen harrier land. He also stated that these farmers were forgotten and left behind and this new scheme would be comparable with the old hen harrier farm plan scheme. This is not the case under the recently announced scheme. Farmers are still left behind in some areas and their lands still remain sterilised and worthless.
Forestry has become a very contentious issue when mentioned in the context of hen harrier SPAs. As can be seen from figure 4 in the presentation, there was an agreed quota of over 9,000 ha of afforestation to be planted in hen harrier SPA areas over a 15-year period. Each SPA was allocated a yearly quota. However, as can be seen in figure 5, only 1,100 of this agreed quota was delivered.
A clear commitment was given to farmers that afforestation would be generally permitted. This never materialised. As can be seen from figure 5, the levels of permits consistently fell below the targets. This was certainly not from lack of demand, but a deliberate attempt to restrict afforestation even further. The question remains that if afforestation had such a negative effect on the hen harrier, why was so much afforestation proposed at the outset. Farmers were well aware of the importance of additional afforestation in SPAs. It meant that farmers would still be able sell land at similar market value to land outside of the designated area.
A complete ban on afforestation was put in place in 2011-12, despite the targets not being met. This was apparently related to poor results in the 2010 hen harrier survey. It was decided that a threat response plan would be established to look at the threat to the hen harrier. It is the end of January 2018 and no results have been published. This is nothing short of disgraceful. The threat response plan has been used as a stalling tactic, while farmers have been receiving zero compensation on land that they can neither sell nor plant.
Why would anyone want to buy designated land under the current criteria when the economic opportunities are non-existent?
The schemes available to date are also available to farmers outside designated areas. In general, wind energy companies will not work with private landowners. Coillte, however, has been accommodated by planning authorities for approvals in respect of wind turbines in hen harrier SPAs. There are more than 270 wind turbines in these SPAs. Of these, more than 230 have been erected since the lands, which are located in some of the most important nesting areas, became designated in 2007. This is despite county development plans against wind turbines in SPAs. Solar companies also steer clear of hen harrier SPAs because they are not willing to get into a time-consuming and costly bureaucratic battle with planning and environmental authorities. The largest landowner in this SPA, the State, has not suffered anything like the losses of opportunity or income from forestry as those endured by private landowners. This is very discriminatory and shows who is carrying the real cost of designated areas. This designation is costing farmers hundreds of millions of euro in opportunity costs.
It is quite clear why these lands have become devalued. The level of support is far too low and far too stop-start. A combination of things need to happen. Firstly, a statutory payment needs to be put in place and paid by the National Parks and Wildlife Service - or the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine - every year for every hectare of designated land in recognition of the restrictions of designation. Regardless of who is in government, this payment must be made every year. In the context of hen harrier SPAs, this payment must be at least €370 per hectare and must be index-linked. The most recent Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, included an option to pay farmers in designated areas such a payment type, similar to the areas of natural constraint, ANC, payment, but this was not taken up by Ireland. It was proposed to be 5% of Pillar 1.
Additional schemes to boost income further through actions or habitats improvement will be welcome thereafter but not in substitution for a payment per hectare as I have just outlined. Many of these lands are becoming abandoned. It is clear that the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine's policy is most definitely leading to abandonment of land, which is against EU policy.
These lands have recommended livestock limits and a new suckler cow scheme of €350 per cow or ewe scheme of €50 per ewe is warranted. These lands are under-grazed which negatively affects the biodiversity cycle. It is our firm belief that farm abandonment or non-active farming is doing far more damage to the population of the hen harrier than forestry. The challenge is to support farming to the same level or above that of forestry payments. The payments must rise to a level that makes the market value of the land similar to the afforestation value. Currently, suitable forestry land outside designated areas is achieving up to €5,500 per acre whereas designated land of a similar type and quality is only achieving €800 to €1,200 per acre. This is absolutely unacceptable and the gap must be bridged.
Jim O' Brien recently wrote an article in the Irish Independent farming section in which he stated that in the last 20 years there has been a 40% reduction in the number of people employed in agriculture and fisheries in Connacht and in counties such as Donegal. I am in no doubt that the same can be said for parts of Cork, Kerry, Limerick and Tipperary as well. I know of many townlands in which it is most likely that a child will never be born again. This is wrong and it is unacceptable for a small place like Ireland, with so many assets all over the State, to allow parts of our country to become abandoned.
The Citizens' Assembly recently highlighted just how valuable are Ireland's peat-type soils. Our soil type is currently offsetting a large percentage of Ireland's carbon emissions and it highlights our very valuable carbon sink.
Land devaluation can be addressed in a number of ways.
Unconditional afforestation related to undesignated areas suitable for afforestation should be allowed. A tax credit similar to the value of afforestation should be provided for the purchase of designated land; this tax credit would be removed at such time as approval for afforestation would be permitted. General afforestation incentives would then apply. It should be agreed with farmers that if they sell their land to the National Parks and Wildlife Service, NPWS, it would pay the difference between the sale price of the designated land and the market value of similar non-designated land, which was outlined in an agreement which was offered to farmers prior to the designation.
Where the NPWS purchases the land from farmers it should give them the value of similar type non-designated land. I thank members for hearing our concerns and I hope that proper solutions can be found to address these problems conclusively.