Bearing in mind that the 2013 Budget was agreed against a background of a very difficult financial situation, I managed, with re-orienting and re-scheduling payments within my Department’s budget, to keep the adjustments made to Schemes to a minimum. It was also my objective to protect, in so far as is possible, the smaller-scale farmers situated in Disadvantaged Areas.
In relation to the Disadvantaged Areas Scheme, I am extremely pleased that, even within the tight budgetary disciplines, I was able to increase the funding for this Scheme by €5 million in 2013, to bring the total funds available up to €195 million. However, in view of the existing level of expenditure under this Scheme in 2012, it is still necessary to make adjustments, in order to keep within the new allocation. I have, however, ensured that farmers, particularly sheep farmers farming mountain type grazing, will not have their aid, which is important to the viability of their farming enterprises, reduced. In order the carry out the adjustment, I decided to reduce the area maximum area payable from 34 to 30 hectares in respect of farmers situated in More Severely and Less Severely Disadvantaged Areas. By achieving this adjustment in this manner, together with a number of technical changes, over 72% of all applicants will not have their basic aid changed.
The Suckler Cow Welfare Scheme was a five-year Scheme which is ending on 31 December 2012. I have, however, made funding of €10 million available for this Scheme in 2013. These funds will be used to continue to pay calves born the herds of Scheme participants when they become eligible for payment. Payments in respect of 2012 born calves, which are now eligible for payment, will commence next week. Taking into account payments of €22 million, which will be issued in respect of 2012 born calves, the Exchequer will have paid €158 million in total under this Scheme. This is a very substantial contribution to the very important beef sector. I am, therefore, pleased that a Value for Money Audit, which was undertaken in accordance with the Department of Finance Value for Money and Policy Review Initiative, established that the Scheme has largely achieved these objectives. The 34,000 participants, who continued in the Scheme over its five-year duration, are fully aware that following best practice in the breeding, animal health/welfare aspects and rearing of suckler calves leads to better prices and demand at weanling sale time.
It was important to build on progress made under the lifetime of the Suckler Cow Welfare Scheme. Therefore, I have allocated €10 million in 2013, financed from unspent Single Farm Payment Funds for a new support programme for suckler farmers to participate in a new Beef Data Programme. When taken together with residual payments of €10 million under the Suckler Cow Welfare Scheme, this will amount to €20 million in direct payments to suckler farmers in 2013. This programme will assist farmers in improving the genetic quality of Irish cattle and will maintain the data flow into ICBF in order to build further knowledge and more rapid progress in breeding and ultimately in profitability for farmers. In addition, the sum of €5 million has been set aside to support the continuation for another year of the Beef Technology Adaptation Programme, a scheme that provides beef farmers with better information and improved skills to increase profitability on farms.
The Grassland Sheep Scheme is one of the measures funded by unused Single Farm Payment funds. This Scheme, as originally implemented, was to run for three years: 2010, 2011 and 2012, with an annual budget of €18 million. I am, however, pleased to confirm that, notwithstanding continued adverse budgetary conditions, I was in a position to secure funding which allows the Scheme continue for a fourth year, albeit with adjusted funding of €14 million.
Direct aid payments are important, but it is time for the sheep sector to adapt and develop their enterprises in line with other sectors. In that regard, I have decided to make funding of €3 million for a new Sheep Technology Adoption Programme, which concept has already proven very successful in both the dairy and beef sectors, with a maximum payment of €1,000 per participant. It is important that sheep farmers take action to increase and maximise their income from their enterprises. This can be achieved by improving breeding, animal health/welfare and grazing regimes. The dairy sector has demonstrated that the discussion group concept to achieve such improvements. Notwithstanding the financial adjustment made to the overall funding to the Grassland Sheep Scheme, hill sheep farmers, who join a Sheep Discussion Group, will find that the aid they will receive in 2013 will increase by almost €590.