I am very conscious of the important role that the sheep sector plays in relation to the continued growth and development of our agri-food sector. For example, in 2017 some 63,000 tonnes of Irish sheep meat worth €311 million was exported, with diversification evident from our traditional primary markets of France and the UK.
I have therefore ensured that my Department has put in place a range of supports for the sheep sector in recent years across a number of schemes. In relation to Pillar 1 supports under the Common Agricultural Policy, sheep farmers continue to benefit from the direct income support available under the Basic Payment Scheme (BPS).
In addition, Ireland’s Rural Development Programme (RDP), 2014-2020, contains a number of support schemes which offer direct financial benefit to Irish sheep farmers. Sheep farmers continue to benefit from the Areas of Natural Constraint (ANC) Scheme and from GLAS in large numbers, as well as from capital investment support under TAMS. The RDP also includes specific provision for sheep farmers within the Knowledge Transfer Programme, which has helped to build on the existing knowledge base and skills set in the sector in a way which will help to ensure continued sustainable development in the sector.
I also introduced the Sheep Welfare Scheme as an amendment to the RDP. Under this scheme, farmers are required to choose from a menu of actions which aim to improve the overall welfare of their flock. These actions must be completed over a 12 month period, and in return the farmer receives a payment of €10 per breeding ewe.
This important support was introduced for a period of four scheme years, and over €18.4 million issued to sheep farmers in respect of Year 1 of the Scheme.
Advance payments under year 2 of the Scheme have also issued in November this year with €15.1 million paid to 18,600 participants.
Taking the range of available schemes together, over €617.5 million was paid in direct financial supports to sheep farmers in 2017. The corresponding figure for 2016 was €601.6 million.
I will continue to ensure that these vital supports are prioritised for farmers. For example, some €219.2 million has already been paid out to farmers under the 2018 ANC Scheme which commenced payment in September. The balancing payment under the BPS and Greening also issued this week brining total payments under these scheme to €1.2bn to 121,000 farmers.
In addition, I have also announced a once-off support measure of up to €100 per keeper to assist with the costs incurred by sheep farmers in meeting the requirements placed on them by the extension of electronic identification to all sheep. This payment will be related to the first purchase of electronic tags between 1 October 2018 and 30 September 2019 with a cost of up to €3.6 million. The first payments under this measure will issue in early 2019.
I am committed to ensuring that my Department continues to work to underpin the development of the sheep sector.