I propose to take Questions Nos. 31 and 54 together.
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). Cross-compliance involves two key elements:
- A requirement for farmers to comply with 19 Statutory Management Requirements (SMRs) set down in EU legislation on the public health, animal and plant health, animal welfare, and the environment;
- A requirement to maintain the land in good agricultural and environmental condition.
EU regulations governing the area based schemes set minimum standards for GAEC, which must be complied with, by means of the undertaking of appropriate agricultural practices. These standards set requirements relating to the protection of soil from erosion; maintenance of soil organic matter levels; maintenance of soil structure; minimum level of maintenance and avoidance of deterioration of habitats and the protection and management of water. Farmers can keep agricultural land in GAEC by conducting an agricultural activity on it, such as grazing, harvesting forage crops, or by topping. Where a farmer chooses to keep his land in GAEC by grazing, a sufficient stocking rate must be met to ensure compliance with the required standards.
Commonage lands form an important part of the farming enterprises of many farmers, particularly along the West Coast. They also form an important part of the local environment from the point of view of bio-diversity, wildlife, amenities and economic returns e.g. tourism. However, there is a substantial risk of land abandonment as under-grazing becomes more of a problem.
Under-grazing and, indeed, over-grazing, leads to an increase in ineligible land under Direct Aid and Agri-Environment Schemes and leads to risk of financial corrections being imposed by EU Commission. It is vital, therefore, to maintain the commonages in GAEC, or where there is under-grazing, or over-grazing, to return the habitat to GAEC. It is my stated aim that this will be achieved by working with the farmers directly managing the lands, relevant State Agencies, the farming organisations and all other interested stakeholders. I readily acknowledge that it will not be an easy task, but it is achievable if all stakeholders work in a co-operative basis. My Department will set out proposals as to how these matters might be progressed in the near future.