I propose to take Questions Nos. 283 and 286 together.
In the first instance, my Department does not have a role in the designation of lands under the EU directives relevant to the Deputy’s questions. This is a matter for my colleague the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government as the National Parks and Wildlife Service falls under the remit of that Department
However, there are a number of issues which are of direct relevance to the area-based schemes implemented by my Department in order to provide support to farmers.
Eligibility for payments under EU funded area-based schemes such as the Basic Payment Scheme and the Areas of Natural Constraint Scheme is established under Article 32.1 of Regulation 1307/2013 which provides that “Support under the basic payment scheme shall be granted to farmers, ....... upon activation of a payment entitlement per eligible hectare ....”
The definition of an eligible hectare is set out in article 32.2.(a) and (b) of this regulation. An eligible hectare is defined as (a) “any agricultural area of the holding, ........ that is used for an agricultural activity or, where the area is also used for non-agricultural activities, is predominantly used for agricultural activities” and (b) “any area which gave a right to payments in 2008 under the single payment scheme ... and no longer complies with the definition of 'eligible hectare' under point (a) as a result of the implementation of Directive 92/43/EEC, Directive 2000/60/EC and Directive 2009/147/EC.”
Article 4.1.(c) provides the definition of an agricultural activity as “(i) production, rearing or growing of agricultural products, including harvesting, milking, breeding animals, and keeping animals for farming purposes, (ii) maintaining an agricultural area in a state which makes it suitable for grazing or cultivation without preparatory action going beyond usual agricultural methods and machineries, based on criteria established by Member States on the basis of a framework established by the Commission”
Article 4.1.(e) of that regulation provides a definition of agricultural area as “ any area taken up by arable land, permanent grassland and permanent pasture, or permanent crops”.
With regard to 4.1 (c) (ii), Ireland has defined that the usual agricultural methods and machineries are topping, spraying, mulching and legal burning.
In determining the area of land eligible for payment under the relevant area based schemes, the Department deducts ineligible features from the gross area of the parcel. These include non-agricultural area (e.g. raised bog and areas that are too wet for animals or machinery to access), fenced off areas, hard features like buildings and rock, and the area of the parcel that is covered in scrub or other non-forage vegetation. In addition any land where there is no agricultural activity (abandoned land) is deducted.
Where a farmer claims on land in an area protected under Directive 92/43/EEC, and/or Directive 2009/147/EC, payment is made on such land where it is agricultural land, with an agricultural activity and where it gave right to a payment and was claimed for payment in 2008. For this land, non agricultural areas along with hard features are deducted. The area covered in scrub or other non forage vegetations within the parcel is also deducted unless “Activities Requiring Consent” (ARCs) for Special Protection Areas or “Notifiable Actions” (NAs) for Special Areas of Conservation specifically forbid the cutting or removal of such vegetation. In addition, the area that was covered in ineligible features in 2008 is also deducted as these areas could not give a right to payment in 2008.
The habitats that are protected under these EU directives developed over a long period of time in conjunction with agricultural activities, which also sustained economically important farming activities and in most cases they require agricultural activities in order to be sustained as habitats. Payment may only be made for parcels with no agricultural activity in cases where the ARCs or NAs prevent the farmer carrying on an agricultural activity. In all other cases where there is no agricultural activity payment cannot be made as set out in article 32 of regulation 1307/3023.
It should also be noted that one of the four objectives of the Green, Low, Carbon, Agri-Environment Scheme (GLAS) administered by my Department is to contribute to positive environmental management of farmed Natura 2000 sites and river catchments in the implementation of the EU Directives in question. This is achieved through compensating farmers for actions such as Farmland Habitat (Private Natura) where applicants manage the land to avoid farming practices that cause environmental damage and protect vulnerable habitats such as wetlands, which in turn helps to safeguard animals and plants which occupy them. This action may also be chosen in conjunction with any of the Farmland Bird, Bat or Bee actions also available under GLAS.
In relation to the part of the questions relating the work of the Agriculture Appeals Office (AAO), I wish to inform the Deputy that the AAO operates independently of my Department. The Director and the Appeals Officers carry out their functions in accordance with the provisions of the Agriculture Appeals Act 2001 and the Agriculture Appeals Regulations 2002. There are distinct and specific statutory functions assigned to the officials delivering the appeals service which require the Appeals Officers and the Director under law to be independent in the performance of their functions when making determinations on appeals made by affected persons against decisions taken by the Department.
Appeals Officers are required to have regard to the principles of natural justice and to comply with the terms and conditions and EU regulations applying to the Department schemes when considering and making decisions on appeals. I have been advised by the Director that she is satisfied that the Agriculture Appeals Office is carrying out its functions as required under the governing legislation.