My Department, in the context of delivering the Single Payment Schemes, Disadvantaged Areas’ Scheme and other area related schemes, is required to carry out a programme of annual inspections. This inspection regime covers both the eligibility of land declared to drawn down payments and also cross compliance aspects, to ensure adherence with EU regulatory requirements in the areas of public, animal and plant health, environment and animal welfare.
In order to be eligible under the Single Payment Scheme and other area based schemes, an applicant must ensure that all agricultural land is maintained in good agricultural and environmental condition (GAEC). Issues relating to control of rushes must, therefore, be seen in this overall context.
Farmers can keep grassland in GAEC by conducting an agricultural activity on it, such as grazing, harvesting forage crops, or by topping. Grasslands continue to be eligible where it is evident that the stocking rate on the land is sufficient and, for example, keeps rushes under control and avoids their proliferation. In such situations, the reality is there may not be a necessity to cut rushes. However, where a farmer cuts rushes as part of management practice, with the exception of certain designated lands, there are no restrictions on when this is done, enabling the task to be carried out at any time throughout the year once conditions are suitable.
I am acutely aware of the weather related difficulties being experienced by farmers and of their concern in respect of their ability to meet the various compliance requirements. When conducting inspections, my Department’s personnel take prevailing weather conditions into account. For example, where the practice is to cut rushes and it has not been possible to top them in the current year, inspectors will take a broader assessment including whether there is evidence that they have been cut in previous years. Where land is deemed ineligible, this, in the main, is a result of the inclusion of ineligible areas/features and where it is not being used for an agricultural purpose. In cases where land with rushes is rejected, it will be seen that this is due to the broader issue of insufficient agricultural activity being undertaken on it to keep it in GAEC.
In the event that a penalty is applied as a result of an inspection, an individual applicant can look for the decision to be reviewed. The applicant may subsequently appeal the outcome of any such review to the independent Agriculture Appeals Office. Finally, the applicant has the right to pursue the matter further with the Office of the Ombudsman. I should state that there is no specific provision in the EU Regulations concerned governing the right of farmers to seek a review of decisions. The review and appeals mechanism was introduced by my Department with a view to ensuring that every decision to impose a penalty could be challenged by individual farmers.
In this context, it is important that I stress the importance of the Direct Payment Schemes to both the farmers who receive these payments and also the wider rural economy. Annually these payments amount to some €1.8 billion. Therefore it is incumbent on my Department to ensure that the EU regulatory control environment is comprehensively implemented to protect these payments, allow the payments to be made quickly and to avoid substantial EU disallowances.