Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine díospóireacht -
Tuesday, 12 Feb 2013

Use of Commonage Lands: Discussion with Teagasc, NARGC and Golden Eagle Trust

I remind members to please turn off all mobile telephones, iPads, mini pads, etc. The hearings today continue on the use of commonage lands. We have two groups. First, we will allow Teagasc to make its presentation followed by a question and answer session. We shall suspend for a minute to allow the witnesses to withdraw and the National Association of Regional Game Councils to make its presentation.

From Teagasc I welcome Mr. Pat Murphy, head of environment knowledge transfer, and Ms Catherine Keena, countryside management specialist, and thank them for appearing before the committee.

Before we begin I wish to draw to the attention of witnesses the fact that they are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to do so, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. Witnesses are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.

I remind members of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against any person outside the Houses or an official, either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. I understand Ms Catherine Keena will make a presentation.

Ms Catherine Keena

The context for the commonage issues include: the review of commonage framework plans; review of the Common Agricultural Policy involving single farm payments, disadvantage area payments, agri-environment schemes and support for collective action; the habitats directive for Natura 2000 commonages, 60% of which are Natura commonages, GAEC under cross compliance, requires no damage to the soil; and eligibility issues for SPS and agri-environmental schemes in connection with undergrazing. The context also includes: low returns to upland farming from the market; poor demographics, for example, lack of succession is a concern; issues of collective farming; importance and sensitivity of the environment of the uplands; and substantial risk of land abandonment. The habitats and the landscape in the uplands have been created through farming and require farming and will ensure the viability of rural communities.

The current payments to farmers with commonage include the single payment scheme, disadvantaged area scheme, REPS and AEOS. Payment is based on individual commonage share and is paid on a per hectare basis similar to non-commonage land. Overgrazing of sites, pictures of which we have seen in the past, has arisen in response to coupled payments, sheep premium and disadvantaged area. Undergrazing, which is a potential issue for the future, has arisen in response to the decoupling of payments, social change and low market prices.

When I look at a commonage I have a vision of appropriate conditions but do farmers have the same vision? We must be clear on what we want to see if we are to have any chance of succeeding. It goes back to Teagasc advisers being involved with dairy farmers talking about grass budgeting and grass measurement. However, it is only when farmers go out in a group and visit each other's farms and assess fields, that they understand that it begins to make sense - similarly for the use of commonage lands. We talk a good deal but is everybody clear on what we want to see?

Commonage milestones include the introduction of REPS in 1994, designation of degraded commonages and poor uptake by shareholders between 1994 and 1998. In November 1998 the national commonage plan insisted on 30% destocking for farmers in six relevant counties with large amounts of commonage as an interim measure until the individual commonage framework plans were prepared in 1999 to 2003. In October 2002, farmers received letters notifying them of preliminary calculations of permitted sheep numbers in 2003. That was the beginning of destocking.

The commonage framework plans focused on destocking. The plan had variable outcomes such as a reduction in overgrazing - recovery takes time to get to the favourable conservation status and in the meantime undergrazing has emerged as an issue. The review of the commonage framework plans mentions a sustainable stocking rate. From experience of blanket bogs in similar conditions, there is an average sustainable stocking rate for undamaged wet heaths and dry heaths and undamaged grasslands. The way the sustainable stocking rate works is that a commonage will have a mixture of those habitat types within the same townland. If it is half blanket bog, half wet heath or whatever the stocking rate is averaged out. It is a paper figure and is a good start. For each LPIS parcel basis there is a minimum and a maximum stocking rate. Teagasc is supportive of this principle as a start. The challenges include local circumstances. Grazing patterns in every townland will vary on the commonage, some will graze four weeks, some will graze for 52 weeks of the year. There will be different stock types - sheep and cattle of various ages. It is difficult to get the grazing pattern right.

Another challenge is the lead-in time for increasing stock. It is difficult for a hill sheep farmer to keep more than 10% of his or her own breeding ewes in a year and it is difficult to bring in outside sheep as they have to be bred on the mountain. Forcing usage can cause more harm than good. It will probably not be done right if farmers are forced to put up a small number of sheep. I spoke to some farmers recently who told me it is not worth chasing 20 or 30 sheep around a commonage.

It can be difficult to put up only a small number. On the other hand, there are active farmers on those commonages who may be willing to take up the slack. This is the issue of getting up to the maximum. It is probably easier to come down to the minimum - one takes them off. With the under-grazing issues and trying to get them up to the maximum, it is not something that can be done overnight for those issues.

With the varying usage of commonage by individual farmers, as I explained, a co-operative approach to management is widely seen as the most effective management mechanism to achieve positive outcomes. A co-operative approach is different from collective responsibility. The problem with collective responsibility is there is a significant risk of fear of loss of individual payments due to the failure of collective agreement. There is a fear of unjust penalties, for example, that one would be penalised because another man on the commonage over whom one has no control does something else. This is a genuine fear.

The policy instruments will need to provide incentives for a collective approach. It requires significant effort from farmers and will require outside support, including professional support. Achieving a co-operative approach is not trivial. It will require time and professional input with associated transaction costs as well as incentives for farmers. The challenge is how to deliver sufficient reward for effective management at individual farmer level and collectively, and how Common Agricultural Policy payments can support group initiatives to deliver better outcomes than individual support.

There is experience from the UK that shows it is possible to achieve a collective approach with economic incentives through commonage measures in agri-environment schemes. I was involved in a European-funded trip, organised by the European Forum on Nature Conservation and Pastoralism and IT Sligo, in May last where we visited England and Scotland to observe the issues there. Many of the problems are similar. At present in England, 74% of common land is in collective agreement in agri-environment schemes. It is a significant part of their income. Some 15% of the upland farmers' income comes from the agri-environment schemes.

Wales is an interesting case. The current figure for involvement in collective agreement is 32%, but it is expected, with farmers expressing an interest for this current year's scheme, that it will rise to 75%. In recent years, this has jumped from 2%. The interesting point is that, for fear that they would not get involved in this, there were 18 commons development officers appointed on a short-term contract basis using funding from the technical assistant fund, and that has been seen as having an impact. We found it interesting. It would be interesting for Irish farmers and policymakers to visit and talk to their Welsh counterparts to note the good points.

The policy opportunities to address the challenges of which we have spoken are target commonage measures, reward delivery of high-quality environmental goods, and support for upland management, for example, through groups such as discussion groups and farmers' groups and through the farm advisory system. As I alluded to, there is a key role for education. Often we speak of what we want and we do not always have the same understanding. Education is very important.

Another challenge is improved public awareness of the public good from upland farming. It is important that farmers are conscious of the value of this and that outsiders show that it is important. It is because it is common that it is not appreciated. It is seen as a dumping ground or wasteland. We really need to increase its profile and highlight the benefits. Another challenge is improving the viability of rural communities.

The public good benefits of sustainable management of the uplands will deliver sustainable agricultural production; no land abandonment; improved environmental outcomes for bio-diversity, water quality, climate change, landscape and cultural features; reduced risk of fire, which is not a minor issue; support for recreational use and rural tourism; and control of the spread of invasive species. Sustainable management will deliver these and will deliver upland flora and fauna. The figures show there are 34 butterfly species, a quarter of which are under threat of extinction. They all need different habitats. The ones in the upland, such as the marsh fritillary, needs the devil's bit scabious and the purple moor grass for food and different aspects. There are 101 bee species in Ireland. Forty-two have declined by 50% since 1980 and three have become extinct. The uplands can deliver their species. Farming is also needed to maintain the uplands.

We must learn from the experience of others, move slowly, bring farmers along with us, which shows the importance of education, and adopt a flexible approach to get the desired result. In the presentation, the picture including the child is not without a message.

I thank Ms Keena. Her presentation was succinct but crystalised all of the major concerns surrounding the commonage issue and the draft review proposals as they stand. If I might summarise her presentation, it is a matter of common sense.

First, I apologise that I must leave in a few minutes to go back into the Dáil. I thank Ms Keena for her presentation. There is a great deal of debate yet to take place before we resolve this issue.

Until there was interference with farmers through the schemes and by the Department and everybody else, farmers kept the land in good farming order. Before payments such as the ewe premiums were introduced, there were no major problems on the hills. Therefore, the farmers are educated. The farmers know exactly what to do on the hill if the incentive is correct. That has been a major flaw in all of the approaches to dealing with the issue of hill land.

The question the Department never answered for me when I was Minister, and nobody else has answered it, is what is the definition of a commonage. I do not believe that most hill land in Ireland that we call commonage is commonage in the true sense. It is undivided shares in a mountain, and the number sharing can range from two persons. If two brothers or cousins, or a husband and wife, hold undivided shares of land, I am not saying that is a commonage. In some cases there are five, in others it is 500. In other situations, such as in Wicklow, I understand, there are collops where one has a right to put out a certain number of sheep. It is totally different. Therefore, I do not see this as a commonage issue, which is what the Department has persisted with for 20 years. Some of the most over-grazed commonages were not commonages at all but were owned by one individual. The person farmed it badly because the ewe premium provided the same incentive.

I believe that much of what is considered good and has been advised, such as the off-wintering of sheep, taking cattle off the hill, and feeding sheep on the hill, has had the effect of under-grazing parts of the hills, over-grazing other parts and what I call the "cat at the back door" syndrome, that is, the sheep will keep coming back where they think the feed will be and will trample over part of the hill. Therefore, we need to sit down with the farmers and find out what they have to say.

In that regard, does Teagasc have a hill farm research station any more?

Does Teagasc have experts in cattle and sheep hill farming who are used to the realities and who can put their advice in the mix? Such advice was useful to me in the past when it was available. Does Teagasc have a trial hill farming station on which it tries out various feeding methods including taking animals off or on in the winter? What arrangements does it have for conducting practical research on hill farming to establish whether the prescriptive approach taken works?

Dr. Brendan Dunford came before the committee recently. I was involved in destocking because of the grant situation but I did it on a global basis. The commonage framework plans which have been introduced do not work. Dr. Dunford's approach is outputs based, which means the farmer is measured on whether the grass, land and habitat are preserved in a certain way but he or she is told how much stock to have. Farmers and experts would work together to achieve results rather than what is being done, which is the Department hands down prescriptions on numbers and when they should be on the hill. This does not tie in with the weather and it does not work. What is the view of the witnesses on this? Would it be possible to return to an outputs basis rather than the prescriptive way it is done at present?

I thank the witnesses for their presentation. The experience in England and Scotland was mentioned and how it is possible to achieve a collective approach. I assume a collective approach would be on a co-operative basis. How does the co-operative approach work in Scotland and England with regard to the fear of collective responsibility? If the issue can be solved on a co-operative collective basis, things can only get better. Incentives were mentioned. I do not live too far from an area with sandhills which is worked on a co-operative basis with collective responsibility. It has been very badly damaged over the years and when one or two people stepped out of line, they faced consequences. How does one get people to buy into this and see the benefits of working together for the common good? By working for the common good in a collective way, they also improve themselves individually. Ms Keena stated achieving a co-operative approach is not trivial and that it will require time and professional input with associated transaction costs as well as incentives for farmers. What does she mean by "associated transaction costs"?

I welcome Ms Keena and Mr. Murphy and I thank Ms Keena for her presentation. I have a particular interest in this as a former chair of the IFA's hill committee from 2002 to 2005 when there was significant debate on this issue. I was involved from 1998 when destocking first took place. During this time some of these commonages have recovered to the degree that they are now undergrazed. In some cases some of the better commonages were abused by farmers and I have been lobbied by farmers on both sides of the argument in recent months since the debate started again. Much damage has been done and continues to be done on some commonages and work must be done on this.

I know of a particular commonage where each farmer has 30 acres. Some farmers will put between 300 and 500 sheep in the area for a short term during the summer months, but this destroys the commonage which is very unfair to other farmers who want to manage it. When I was young a management committee was in place among the farmers to manage the commonage and one of our favourite Sunday pastimes was when, once a month, we gathered up all the stock to check them out. If any farmer was found to be abusing stocking levels, he or she was penalised and fined. It was a great incentive. This will not work now because massive rows would take place among the farmers. We need somebody from Teagasc or the Department to discuss the best way to go forward because something must be done. We must encourage our young people to get involved in commonages which have been allowed to become overgrown and encourage them to get stock back on them. The older farmers will not be able to manage the stock. We must encourage the local breeding of stock to be established on the hill. This must be done by younger people with breeding stock. We all have a major job to do and much debate must take place.

With regard to rural development, we want to see species and wildlife returning. I am involved with local groups in the grouse project in north Leitrim and we would love to see it happening in more of the commonages. We all have work to do in the coming months to get this right once and for all so we do not find ourselves with another problem in a few years where some commonages will be overgrazed while others will not. We must establish a template now which will help farmers manage stock and help wildlife to get back on the commonage.

I thank the representatives from Teagasc for coming before the committee. The background to this comes from the National Parks and Wildlife Service which has drawn up the plans. I have a number of concerns about what is being done, particularly with regard to the total lack of consultation with the people who farm these lands. No consultation was done with the registered farmers in my constituency and other parts of west Donegal. The manner in which the National Parks and Wildlife Service has dealt with farmers and landowners in recent years is quite disgraceful, particularly the manner in which special areas of conservation and special protection areas have been designated and with regard to the co-operation required on commonage lands.

The commonage framework plans were working quite effectively and farmers were co-operating, albeit they were restricted with regard to grazing. To come forward with a plan without any consultation shows nothing has been learned from the mistakes of the past. We need to go back to the drawing board because what is expected of farmers is wholly unfair. Provision is made for farmers who are away and not farming, but farmers may not be on good terms and may not get on with each other. This is a practical difficulty which, from reading the documentation, has not been considered. A farm planner, REPS planner or agricultural consultant is to carry out a plan for all farmers on the land which might work on paper but will not work in reality. Beside where I live in Donegal are five or six commonages where the farmers will be the first to say it will not work.

There are 7,000 commonages in the country and there is a need to manage them responsibly. The farmers would be the first to say so. We need to return to the drawing board because the proposal is impractical.

The proposal of a specific type of stock for commonages is a major concern. Dexter cattle were mentioned but there are not many of them knocking around. A commonage is a wide definition. I agree with Deputy Ó Cuív that some commonage land is quite arable agricultural land but there is lesser commonage land which provides lesser quality grazing. Many commonages in the State have a mixture of Suffolk Texel cross ewes grazing successfully and rearing two lambs each. For other commonages only black faced mountain sheep are suitable and they might raise only one lamb each. Therefore, a one-size-fits-all approach does not work for commonages. The proposal would be unfair to farmers who have traditionally farmed their lands using a Suffolk Texel cross or pure breeds on commonage lands. Now they are being asked to go back to the drawing board after having invested massively in stock. They are being told that they must use the black face mountain ewe or something like it, but the measure will drive people off the land.

I appreciate that the recommendation came from the National Parks and Wildlife Service. Luckily it was not mentioned in letters that were due to be issued to farmers before Christmas because that would have been disastrous. We need to go back to the drawing board and sit down with the farmers, farm organisations and the people who use commonages and park the proposal for the moment. In practical terms it would create anarchy on commonages. I do not mean to be critical. Instead I am trying to be helpful and practical. We need to park the proposal.

I thank the Senator. The main issue is that we have a collective responsibility approach rather than a co-operative one, which is a big bone of contention. The Senator also mentioned four things that we need to do such as learn from others and take our time bringing farmers on board. I forget the other two suggestions.

The difference between a minimum and maximum must be examined. The tolerance level, going by the two slides shown, for under and over-grazing is quite significant. It does not have to be a very narrow prescriptive level. By doing so, one allows a certain level so that where a large number of people are involved in a commonage and some do not want to participate in the scheme, one does not have to force others to up the level or, on the other hand, one does not have force people to reduce their existing numbers because the overall stocking rate is between the minimum and maximum margins.

Another point, which is not relevant in one sense but is overall, is that the proposal does not apply to national parklands because it only covers defined commonages. However, the nature of the land that forms Natura sites is such that a significant percentage - I would say it is in excess of 60% - of national parklands and, to a lesser extent, Coillte lands is Natura sites. In my opinion, this relates to the type of land as opposed to whether it is commonage or State owned, so the same rules should apply. I say this because with regard to vegetation management, the management of the deer population, which is particularly relevant to where I am from, and stocking rates are intertwined. Unless we have a general discussion on the development of a framework plan we will have missed the boat. While we can do it with commonages, if we leave the significant amount of lands that are in the ownership of the State outside of the control measures, to me that would be a futile exercise. I call on the delegation to respond.

Mr. Pat Murphy

A number of issues have been raised. Deputy Ó Cuív's first question was on the number of Teagasc facilities. Up to a number of years ago Teagasc had a hill farm at Leenane but no longer. Teagasc has changed its approach to working with farmers in this area and has adopted the BETTER farm approach. It has worked extraordinarily well for beef farming. We are putting in place real life research on farms and work with farmers in order to get results. There has also been a series of sheep farms that have adopted the BETTER farm programme, or have been developed over a period of years, and a couple of those are hill farms. That is our approach. The farms are being extensively studied in co-operation with the farmers who operate them. This means that the farmers have a much greater chance of giving us guidance on the best way to work and there is a greater capacity to convey that knowledge to farmers. It is a change in approach and a more effective and efficient use of resources from a Teagasc perspective, but it can be equally effective.

I shall deal with the issue of a co-operative approach versus collective responsibility, which Members view as being a significant issue. The point was made that commonages are managed by groups of farmers in different ways. Therefore, it is hard to put in place a single approach that will work in all cases. The forcing of collective responsibility is likely, in my view, to exacerbate an existing problem.

If we look at the British examples, in terms of where they operate with the co-operative approach in relation to the agri-environment schemes, as it were, the more optional end of the payments that are coming to farmers, they do not interfere to any extent with the single farm payment but are looking at the extra outcomes that exist for farmers to deliver. They are encouraging farmers to work together but it is not a simple job. They have had to take an approach where they have required professional people to get involved with the farmers to encourage them to work together, to show them the potential benefits, and to educate them to try to achieve some of the outcomes. At the moment, if one tried to introduce collective responsibility here, one would end up with a battle and outcomes that do not get close to what one is trying to achieve.

On the notion of agri-environment schemes looking at outcomes rather than inputs, one of the issues with that is it will require greater manpower to work with farmers to look at those outcomes, to look at the current status of those individual commonages, to look at what they can do to achieve a higher status and to work with them to acquire a higher status. That goes beyond a prescriptive approach based on a set of figures written on a piece of paper. In fairness to the National Parks and Wildlife Service, it would like to move to the approach that was outlined to the committee by the Burren people, where they are in a position to examine and assess outcomes. If we are serious about achieving improvements, we must design a scheme that comes out of the combination of commonage frameworks and Common Agricultural Policy reform. We must move in that direction. We must be a lot more flexible in the design of those schemes.

A member suggested that Teagasc and the Department should come together on this, but he forgot to mention the most important group, the farmers. We cannot do it on our own. The committee could invite other groups to attend, and a lot of groups have attended here together but, crucially, farmers need to be involved.

Ms Catherine Keena

Deputy Ferris asked about transaction costs and collective responsibility in the UK. The UK has such a complex and interesting scheme, it is difficult to explain and I will not attempt to do so. It has collective responsibility and a penalty can be imposed on all. It has not ended up being as big an issue over there and the fear is not as significant. Perhaps it is a fear more than it is a reality.

With regard to the big transaction costs, somebody from the outside - such as a land agent - would visit the farmers, asking each what he or she wants from the commonage and if it is being used. One farmer may want to place a small number of cows on it for two months and another may have sheep on it all year. Others may not want any stock on it. The farmers may not be speaking to one another. The land agent we met was fascinating and spent a minimum of one year in discussions and drawing up an agreement where everybody could be happy. It is a totally different process to here. Safeguards are written within it and it is a legal agreement in the end; money is paid to the group, and that group may or may not pay the members who do not want to use the commonage. The approach is completely different and the transaction cost is very obvious, with much input by professionals in drawing it up. There is much money involved.

There is a penalty issue but safeguards can be written into the agreement on how the money is divvied up. It is a different world altogether, and we can learn some lessons from it. We must respect history and people, including how farmers here may not have a close affinity with others on the commonage. There is not a mad rush here for people to say that the farmer who does not put up animals should not get anything. It may be obvious to argue that if a farmer is not using the commonage for grazing, he or she should not get any money. There may be much respect here for an elderly neighbour who was a good farmer for all his life. The money issue is complex but lessons can be learned from the UK approach.

Mr. Pat Murphy

There is another issue regarding the design of our agri-environmental schemes. We have had the rural environment protection scheme and the agri-environment option scheme, AEOS, which attempted to move to a system that did not require any professional help. From our perspective, professional help was required and Teagasc advisers have been needed by practically every farmer. There is an issue, with a desire to take the payment from Europe and transfer as much as possible directly to farmers. I associate with that goal.

There is another dynamic that will emerge, the requirement for value-for-money, with outcomes seen to be delivered by the money. If we are going to deliver those outcomes, we must ensure that the processes and schemes put in place have the support of professionals where required. There must be a system whereby families can take advantage of the environmentalists and agriculturalists for support. That should be effectively built in. Resources within Teagasc will be limited and it is more likely that private consultants will provide the service in future. I am not promoting a self-interest and it is not that much of an issue with regard to our workload. It is very important.

The National Parks and Wildlife Service formulated draft guidelines and as Senator Ó Domhnaill mentioned, there were almost going to be issued by letter until it became clear there was such a level of resistance that common sense prevailed. Is Teagasc being consulted at this point by the Department? We had representatives of Comhairle na Tuaithe before the committee, and it has committed to actively engaging the Department in which it rests. There is much common sense required, and the witnesses have reflected this. Will such common sense be noted by those who make the decision? The farmers and we would like to know this. Is there consultation within the process at this stage?

Mr. Pat Murphy

There are a number of different people who could be consulted and I cannot speak for everybody. Some of the sheep advisers may be working in the commonage areas and may be spoken to. We might not be the first port of call for the Department or the National Parks and Wildlife Service.

I do not want to speak without the committee's agreement but I can safely say that we wish the witnesses to be consulted and we will express that wish. We will have representatives of the Department and National Parks and Wildlife Service before us and perhaps we should direct the question at them.

Mr. Pat Murphy

We have had many dealings with the National Parks and Wildlife Service and the Department. There is a common objective to do the right thing and everybody is working towards that. Sometimes it is very difficult to do this within the resources that people have. Some agri-environmental schemes have been run by the National Parks and Wildlife Service and others are run by the Department. It is important that we ensure there is a consistent message coming to farmers, with a consistent and flexible approach to agri-environmental protection from a single or combined source.

I thank the witnesses. Their presentation and the responses to questions have emanated common sense, and farmers appreciate that as much as everybody else. It is vital when we meet representatives of the Department and the National Parks and Wildlife Service, NPWS, next week that we ask them to consult with the witnesses at a senior level. That would be very helpful. In the past, the NPWS has made a decision and written to farmers informing them that their land is a special protection area; it would even give a grant of €1,350 for an appeal. The process is complete madness and there are 280 appeals in my constituency alone. Everybody has a letter stating they can avail of a grant of €1,350 for an appeal. This occurs instead of sitting down with people and achieving local buy-in.

Lessons can be learned from the process and if local buy-in is to be achieved, people must be brought on board. Teagasc is trusted by farmers and there should be a level of co-operation. That is not to slate the NPWS but it does not have due regard for the manner in which farmers must make a living from the land. It takes the process from a different perspective but I hope we can play a role.

The second half of the issue concerns the design of schemes agreed following the Pillar 2 segment of CAP negotiations. We should be mindful that certain carrots - for want of a better word - must be involved. With regard to the commonage framework or protection of Natura sites, Pillar 2 structures will make it attractive for people to have buy-in

Ms Catherine Keena

I will address one issue. We are speaking about commonage today but there are other matters. The committee may be aware of the national uplands working group.

We talk about uplands all the time but commonage is an element of that. We work closely with Dr. Andy Bleasdale in that regard and have a lot of ongoing, indirect contact with the National Parks and Wildlife Service.

I would like to apologise as I had to step out and take a call during the debate. Following the presentation, I agree with my colleagues that Teagasc's role is absolutely crucial. As a Deputy for Kildare South, the Curragh is a very large commonage in my constituency. It poses challenges for farmers, the Department of Defence and numerous horse trainers and other bloodstock interests. There are many challenges as well as benefits that can accrue from pulling these aspects together. Nonetheless a lot of detail needs to be worked out in heading this up. The tourism, farming, biodiversity and environmental benefits tick many boxes. I was particularly impressed by the Burren project which opened our eyes to the potential of how exciting these projects can be when we work together on them. I would reiterate the point concerning the crucial involvement of Teagasc in this regard.

I thank Ms Catherine Keena and Mr. Pat Murphy for their presentations. If this committee does nothing else, it has facilitated a public consultation process. To date, we have drawn in stakeholders who have all made a lot of sense. We urge those who are examining the draft proposals to consider our meetings to see if they can garner some wisdom from them. It is common sense for commonages, which could perhaps be adopted as a new slogan.

We will now suspend the meeting to allow the witnesses to withdraw and allow representatives of the National Association of Regional Game Councils to take their seats. I thank the Teagasc representatives again for having attended the committee meeting.

Sitting suspended 5 p.m. and resumed at 5.05 p.m.

I now wish to welcome Mr. David Scallan, Mr. Seán Doris and Mr. Simon Devereux from the National Association of Regional Game Councils, as well as Mr. Lorcán O'Toole from the Golden Eagle Trust Limited. I thank them for attending the committee today.

I want to bring to their attention the fact that witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of the evidence they are to give to the committee. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence in relation to a particular matter and they continue to do so, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given. They are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.

I apologise to the witnesses because, having gone through that process, we will now have to suspend for a vote in the Dáil. I have another meeting to attend and may not get back here, depending on how long this vote takes. However, Deputy Deering will take command as Vice Chairman. Is that agreed? Agreed.

Sitting suspended at 5.05 p.m. and resumed at 5.35 p.m.

I understand Mr. Scallan will make an opening statement.

Mr. David Scallan

I thank the Chairman for the opportunity to make a presentation. We will deliver a joint presentation. Mr. Lorcán O'Toole from the Golden Eagle Trust will elaborate on the background and context of the scheme. I will speak on behalf of the National Association of Regional Game Councils on how the new scheme will fit and be implemented and on some options for the Irish upland under the scheme. We welcome questions from members following the presentations.

Mr. Lorcán O'Toole

Dia dhaoibh, a chairde uasail. A Chathaoirleach, táimid an-bhuíoch as an seans seo caint faoin tionchar atá ag bainistíocht féarach agus feirmeoireacht sléibhe ar mhuintir na tuaithe agus ar mhuintir na nGaeltachtaí ar fud na tíre.

My name is Lorcán O'Toole and I am the manager of the Golden Eagle Trust, which is a small wildlife charity. I have worked with farmers in County Donegal for the past 12 years and prior to that I worked for nine years with farmers in the Scottish Highlands.

I will elaborate on the context of the interaction between upland farming and wildlife before Mr. Scallan makes his presentation. I will then look at the potential economic benefits from the relationship, which at times are overlooked and, third, I will look at a good example of co-operation between sheep farmers and wildlife, namely, the golden eagle project in Donegal.

On my return to Ireland, I worked as a Dúchas conservation ranger and I was surprised to find the people whom I met on the ground perceived nature conservation as a foreign concept. Whether we like it, perception is very important, but I would draw attention to the fact that Ireland has one of the oldest sets of sustainable landscape laws in Europe, the Brehon laws. Sometimes we may overlook that ancient respect and interaction with the landscape.

I think most of us would have enjoyed the films of the late Éamon de Buitléar in the 1970s and 1980s. Everybody was captivated by his film making and the way he told the story. However, in the past decade or two there is more fear of nature and fear for nature as well. Let us touch on aspects of fear - fear of designations, of outside interference, of the European Commission's rulings and over access. Fear leads to distrust and disharmony and as a consequence we must be mindful of the terminology we use. Words such as "directives", "descriptions" and "biodiversity" with which I am comfortable may have negative associations elsewhere. That is a twofold approach. I often hear farm leaders say they are the custodians of the landscape. I know they intend to be very positive about it, but in my view we should not try to be keepers or guardians of wildlife because the golden eagle should fly anywhere. The key concept is whether farmers can play a key role in healing the landscape in a way they did in the past but have been led away from as the focus has been placed entirely on food production, premia and incentives.

One can argue that emotions will not put money in the bank but at times, and we have heard some points today, there is a need for common sense between the pure economics and the science of the argument. The real question facing members in the next couple of months whether on commonage or disadvantaged area schemes or the future of upland areas, is whether the current system is delivering its potential in rural areas.

Rural Ireland is very complex and as members will see from the map, it has all different types of habitats. Different farmers will face different constraints and challenges. We are aware that we are lagging behind other European countries in some of the payments, and populations are falling in some areas. This map is based on census information collected by NUI Maynooth and the purple areas show a decline in human population. The decline may be very small but it is fair to say that something is happening in hillside areas. I suggest that members consider whether the current situation is working effectively for the wider public. This type of sensitivity leads us to believe that we need better communication, greater liaison and to instill a sense of pride and ownership so the attitude is much better.

There are arguments on the direction we should take. The Department, in conjunction with Bord Bia, set very ambitious targets for Harvest 2020. It is challenging to get the food production aspect right but it is extremely challenging to maintain that market position because we are aiming at the higher end of the retail trade. Other countries will be actively competing with us. Bord Bia states in its report published in January 2011 that its primary proposition is that Irish food is natural and we can prove it. In 2012, that evolved into the concept that the agrifood sector in Ireland is sustainable. These are key propositions. We cannot underestimate the expertise of Bord Bia. Naturalness and sustainability are key. We may think we are already there, however we must be mindful that in the next ten to 15 years the branding will be under pressure from other countries who will not sit back but will attack our market share.

Fáilte Ireland also has a clearer understanding now of why people come to Ireland. Unfortunately the committee cannot see the related data in my Powerpoint presentation. Fáilte Ireland conducted visitor attitude surveys and they showed that the British, American, French and German tourists especially have said that natural attractions, scenery and landscape are important issues. If we willingly interfere with those we will undermine another key component of the rural economy which is tourism.

I have previously worked for a bird conservation group in Scotland which had 1 million members. In other words, one in 60 Britons were interested in being paid up members in order to be bird watchers. The French and Germans, who are also European taxpayers, are very interested in natural attractions. Perhaps it is because we are so accustomed to them that we overlook them slightly.

Upland farmers do not necessarily compete with lowland farmers rather they complement more productive lowland farms on better soils. If we can instill upland farmers with a greater sense of ownership of nature and the landscape the entire farming sector might benefit. Perhaps the agriculture and agri-food sectors need a lot more wildlife experience inhouse. The Department could play a more direct role in wildlife. The farming representative bodies could have more wildlife experts inhouse. That would mean that farmers would not always have to seek advice from small charities or the National Parks and Wildlife Service. They would be able to say that this is our vision of wildlife.

I shall touch on the golden eagle project in Donegal. Golden eagles are at the top of the food chain and so are dependent on habitats. My slide displays information collected by the NPWS and sent to Europe. It shows that some of the upland habitats are in poor or bad shape. I am not assigning blame for it. The deterioration happened over the past 30 or 40 years for a variety of reasons but no one is blameless. We must decide how to deal with this great challenge and improve the situation. The habitats are in trouble and the European Commission can see that. The bird species in upland areas are in trouble. Our challenge is how can we address the problems, which include the farmers who are in trouble, the increasing age of the population and decreasing incomes. Is there any way to find an agreeable solution to tackle all of these problems?

The golden eagle in Donegal was introduced entirely with the co-operation of the Irish Farmers' Association and a lot of people are surprised by that. It is accepted that the golden eagle project has been beneficial to tourism in Donegal. The local Údarás na Gaeltachta tourism manager has suggested that the golden eagle project was one of the most important additions to Donegal tourism over the past ten years.

The key question is how does the Golden Eagle Trust Limited have a good relationship with the IFA in Donegal. At the start of the project I worked as a Dúchas wildlife range and then we set up the trust because Dúchas was nervous of proceeding with the project. It thought that the farmers might interfere with the eagles. I met George O'Hagan from the Donegal IFA and I said to him that he could stop the project quickly if he so wished. I also asked him to talk to the Scottish farmers first and to take their opinions on board. At the first IFA public meeting that I attended Mr. O'Hagan stood up before me and told the farmers that he had spoken to Scottish farmers who were happy with golden eagles. Basically people trusted Mr. O'Hagan and his opinion. The IFA has been a partner to the trust from the outset.

Mr. David Scallan and I will now present some ideas. We have spoken to Mr. Martin Gavin, Mayo IFA and Mr. Brendan O'Malley, Connemara IFA, in particular. Increasingly, we found that we had a lot more in common than we previously realised. The challenge is trying to get a more agreeable system.

We still lose birds through poisoning but it was banned by the Department in 2008 and the committee can verify that by reading Statutory Instrument 511. Yet there is still a need to discuss poisoning alongside predator control. Perhaps at times we are blinkered in our arguments.

Mr. Scallan will touch on the Boileybrack grouse project in Leitrim which is a great example of community partnership. In summary, a large number of farmers are interested in rearing livestock while looking after the landscape. Perhaps we could encourage them more. Some people want to separate landscape and wildlife management from farming and food production but historically they were aligned. Let us examine the Department's name in Irish which is An Roinn Talmhaíochta, Bia agus Mara which means its remit is much broader than pure agriculture. In particular areas on the western seaboard and upland areas it is in the wider rural interest that we combine farming with tourism. Farmers have an expertise which we can use in order to be proactive for nature rather than being more passive. If we look to our history and the wider economic argument we will see that such a move would benefit the Irish rural and national exchequers. Let us not let anyone dismiss the role of less intensive or part-time farmers. They may not compete with the production levels of lowland farmers but they still have a crucial role to play. In the past sometimes we have mixed up a dislike of the conservation message but do not let that put one off embracing, upholding and healing nature and the landscape. With regard to the wider upland agri-environment scheme I would ask that mountain farmers be given a renewed sense of pride and incentivised to benefit the green nation and the challenges we face with Harvest 2020.

Mr. David Scallan

I thank Mr. O'Toole. He has set the tone well against a backdrop for the need for an upland agri-environment scheme.

I shall quickly outline the background. The interest of the National Association of Regional Game Councils has emerged mainly at grassroot level with our gun clubs getting involved in red grouse management in partnership with commonage owners. Since then we have built fruitful partnerships with a range of NGOs. It is from that platform that we have become interested in ways to deal with the uplands and we can see a real unique opportunity with CAP reform.

I shall outline where the scheme should fit. It would be ideal in Pillar II and in the next rural development programme post-2013. A scheme would target mainly extensive farming and directed at farmers with a significant proportion of semi-natural habitat on their farms. My organisation likes to use the better term of "high nature value farmland".

It is essential that we have an outputs driven scheme and move completely away from proscriptions and penalties. Such a move would simplify the administrative process and I shall talk a little about that later. It would also be above and beyond what is currently available in agri-environment schemes such as REPS, AEOS and the greening measure proposed in Pillar 1 of CAP reform. Our main objective is to encourage farmers to manage their land in a way that will improve the ecological conditions of the habitats. The NARGC has put together a range of options for this and some of them have gained a lot of energy because we are also a part of the national uplands working group which comprises 21 organisations. That has set the tone for a unified vision for the uplands.

We need to introduce a targeted output payment scheme. It is essential because the uplands are farmed landscapes and living landscapes which have been farmed for centuries. The most important compiler of knowledge is the farmer. We should design a simplified scoring scheme that rewards the farmer based on his or her management. Therefore, he or she will be rewarded for good agricultural practice that improves the condition of the habitats. This is a bottom-up approach and it will give the farmer more ownership of his or her farming methods. It would use the farmer as a resource. The scheme could be a lot simpler than the current agri-environment scheme and it could be adapted to suit various habitat types. Obviously sustainable grazing management will be key.

At present there are a range of issues concerning the commonage minimum and maximum grazing levels. My organisation would see this scheme as being a good way to examine site specific ways to develop sustainable grazing patterns. We want the scheme based more on the carrying capacity of the habitats in comparison with what some would argue is a blind approach in terms of identifying grazing rights.

We have listed a range of targeted options, for example the reintroduction of traditional breeds of cattle. This is a way of farming that has been lost in recent years through various policies. We think it could be quite productive in terms of improving specific habitats, grasses competing with heather. We also listed the option of targeted grazing with sheep. This is a return to the old process of shepherding. It is a way of incentivising the farmer to be more active in moving his sheep from areas that are ecologically sensitive through a large berm into areas where there may be tall, old rank degenerative heather than could do with grazing. We would see it as important to have annual heather regeneration. We are discussing the importance of controlled patch burning or heather cutting. I will elaborate more about that. It is to create the culture for heather management. I think this is a skill that has been lost very much in recent years. We know from some of our successful red grouse projects we know that if one can rejuvenate heather and succeed in growing a diversity of young heather stands it is very beneficial for the farmer and for wildlife and good from the point of view of sheep and upland birds. The control of bracken, scrub, rhododendron and non-native species is a major issue mainly associated with land abandonment. Again we think farmers should be incentivised to deal with this issue. Molinia control is also listed and can be quite problematic and a little complex but there are ways either mechanically or through traditional breeds of cattle and sheep to deal with this issue and return habitats to more favourable states. The restoration of areas damaged by over-grazing or illegal burning, one could incentivise the farmer to fence the area temporarily and to move sheep from sensitive ecological areas.

We see the regeneration of heather as essential and we stress the controlled nature of the habitat. There are many local groups that are very interested in getting heather in good condition for red grouse. The gun clubs are a key example. One will see from the image on the screen the controlled nature of what we are talking about. One needs experience and to act in a controlled manner. If one creates the right culture of heather patch burning, it will remove the incentive for large scale illegal burning, which is causing significant damage in the Irish uplands.

My colleague, Mr. Lorcán O'Toole touched on many of the economic issues of tourism. If one can get people to use rural areas, it will be beneficial for rural economies. There is scope to develop paths and walkways and erect stiles to improve access. This would keep pressure off more sensitive habitats and keep farmers happier about access issues and keeping people in the right places at the right times. Heritage infrastructure has a major role to play by directing people with signage with a focus on local placenames.

Under the heading management for specific species, I have listed an example, to encourage the hen harrier, one could breed the curlew or red grouse. One example is predator control. For all red listed bird species, habitat prescriptions is not enough. In some cases, we have evidence from our own projects in which extra options could be put in place, such as the protection of breeding and nesting birds from certain predators, it could be very beneficial. Enhancement work for Natura 2000 will be a major issue. We see this scheme as being very complementary, as it will give the farmer much more ownership of the way he can farm in a sustainable way to achieve results. The current approach is prescriptive and there is not much communication with the farmer. Under the new scheme the farmer will have more ownership of how he works. Selling Natura 2000 is a very good opportunity for farmers. that offers good rewards. We also have an option for supplementary feeding of birds of prey. This is an interesting idea and is used in a variety of EU countries in which there is a possibility of placing fallen stock up on the hill in a controlled manner and it would provide supplementary feeding for birds of prey. It may address some of the other complex issues around birds of prey and improve the environment for them.

There is a range of financial instruments at European level that would allow for an uplands agri-environmet scheme to develop. Article 8 - thematic sub-programmes is specific and could be used very well for more targeted schemes in specific areas. The Irish uplands would fit very well within that category. One will see from Article 36 on co-operation, which is a very good measure that could be used in areas of commonage in particular and would incentivise commonage co-operation with State agencies and local community groups. What is key is knowledge transfer and advisory services. Much work may be required in terms of planning and training in order to get local groups up and running and facilitated. There are a variety of ways in which EU funding could be targeted to achieve this.

The National Association of Regional Game Councils, NARGC, proposes that the Department of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries takes this scheme on board in the next rural development programme. The national uplands working group has also made a submission to the Department. There is a great deal of energy and interest in an agri-environment scheme to address the issues associated with the uplands, which up until now have been neglected in rural development policy.

I thank Mr. Scallan and Mr. O'Toole for their very interesting proposals.

I welcome the informative presentation. The witnesses have put a lot of work into the research, and the proposal that has been put before us this evening. Mr. Lorcán O'Toole covered the role of the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, the population falling in the west and rising in the east. That has been happening over time, partly due to the decline in manufacturing industries, but more importantly the decline in agricultural activity and the supports being generated to encourage more intensive farming rather than actual farming activity. That is an issue for debate under the Common Agricultural Policy, under which historical payments are issued to people who may not be farming as intensively as they were ten years ago but yet are in receipt of the same amount because of the manner in which payments under CAP are divided. The Commission proposes that payments be divided based on hectarage that would allow younger farmers to come back to the west and to take up employment on the family farm.

The witnesses are correct that Food Harvest 2020 is driving the agri-food industry which is worth about €24 billion to the economy. We all subscribed to the fact that we wished to play a major role in the economic recovery of the country. Bord Bia, Teagasc and the other agencies are playing their part, but I do not subscribe to the fact that one can only and exclusively develop the Food Harvest 2020 model through intensive farming. I believe that farmers with smaller farms in peripheral areas play a big role, whether they are in Connemara, west Donegal or Kerry, the farmer who produces small numbers of lambs, calves or young bulls are feeding into the food chain as well. We need to protect the green natural environment if we are to sell the Food Harvest 2020 model abroad, particularly in light of what has happened in the past number of months in the food industry in Europe.

Just because farmers are in a restrictive area does not preclude them from farming. In fact, they are encouraged to farm in conjunction with the wildlife that lives around them. The only way to protect wildlife in a meaningful way is to have the farmer on the land. If the farmer is driven off the land and farming is made restrictive, that will affect wildlife. I am sure Mr. Lorcán O'Toole's view would be that farming and wildlife should go hand in hand. How best could we develop that idea? Is it that some of the responsibilities under National Parks and Wildlife Service should come under the remit of the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine or should the Department liaise with more farmers and the wildlife sector?

The proposal in respect of the scheme is an excellent one. The EU multi-annual financial framework was agreed last week. As it has to go before the European Parliament again, we do not know what will happen. While we were hoping for more money, in the region of €1.5 billion is available in transfers under the single farm payment and the rural development aspect, which is pillar 2. The only scheme available in those areas is the disadvantaged areas scheme which is not exclusively available to the uplands or the commonage areas. It is also available to large arable farmers in the east. Therefore, why call it a disadvantaged scheme? Is it correct to say that the proposed scheme is in addition to the agri-environment options scheme and the rural environment protection scheme? If so, would it be paid on a hectare basis and in addition to other schemes?

I agree wholeheartedly with Mr. David Scallan in respect of the need for any such scheme to be as free from administration as possible. Often the amount of red tape makes it almost impossible for the farmer to draw down the money. While the agri-environment options scheme is in place, it is not all it should it and is certainly not the replacement for REPS that was sought, because the money has to be spent first. As Teagasc explained earlier, the Teagasc planner has to carry out much of the work and it is heavy in terms of administrative work. The scheme being proposed would be welcome and would allow farmers in areas where they are restricted through EU legislation and departmental legislation to derive an income and stay on the land. I am told by smaller farmers that their backs are to the wall, everything is restrictive, there are delays in receiving payments from the Department and they are at breaking point. Some are considering either selling up and going on social welfare or moving away and obtaining employment. People have gone to London and other parts of the world and have left the land behind. Under the new Common Agricultural Policy we must put in place a system to ensure that does not happen. Perhaps this is a proposal that should be given serious consideration by the Department.

I thank the witnesses for the presentation which I hope is something we will be able to consider.

I thank the witnesses for their presentations, which were very informative. The position as outlined by Mr. Lorcán O'Toole in Donegal is hugely impressive. The work of the farming community with the various agencies and the input and support of the farming organisations shows what can done, followed by the knock-on effect of the huge benefit to the entire community from a tourism point of view, including the coastal and rural areas that need it.

The re-introduction of traditional breeds of cattle was mentioned. I assume we are talking about the Kerry Blue and Shorthorn breeds. Has anything been done to initiate it? A big part of what all of us hope can be achieved is down to incentives, co-operation and the collective approach. Apart from monetary incentives, what other incentives have the witnesses in mind? The damage being done to wildlife, in particular by the North American mink and foxes, was mentioned. The mink does more damage to the habitat than any other species. They are predators and kill for the sake of killing. If they are anywhere near a river, they clean out the whole area for the sake of killing. I understand a bounty applies for getting rid of them. In my county and in County Donegal they were allowed go free and have done huge damage to wildlife.

I am supportive of both presentations which offer huge incentives for rural areas at this time. If the plan is managed properly and there is a collective and co-operative approach to it and if the people in the area can buy into it, that is the way to go.

I welcome Mr. Lorcán O'Toole, Mr. David Scallan and Mr. Seán Doris whose presentations were very interesting. I first met Mr. Lorcán O'Toole when he was setting up Golden Eagle Trust Limited. I also met Teagasc in the Boleybrack Mountain area and have a huge interest in the topic.

There are many farmers who were in REPS and miss the payment of €7,000 or €8,000. We must encourage the young people to get involved. Otherwise no farming will take place in these places as the people will emigrate to where there is money to be made. If a sentiment such as that were taken back it would be good. Representatives from the Burren appeared before the committee a couple of weeks ago. They talked about the bottom-up approach where farmers would be encouraged to get involved and given incentives to bring them along. The incentives are important for young people. All the areas have been covered by my colleagues. I would be very supportive of the initiative.

I apologise for appearing to be here and not to be here. I thank the witnesses for their presentations. As Senator Michael Comiskey and others have said, they were really interesting. I am looking at the membership of the national uplands working group. Is the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine part of the group? If not, why not? There is no mention in either of the presentations of the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. Why is that? Do the witnesses feel they are climbing a very high mountain and, if so, is the summit in sight? It is hard to get an idea, from trying to read between the lines, of the level of the struggle in which they are engaged to bring people with them. Having listened to Mr. Lorcán O'Toole I got the impression that he has a huge passion for what he is doing and wonder whether that passion is matched by other people's passion and co-operation. Do the witnesses feel they are in a lonely fight for what they are trying to achieve, which I support wholeheartedly?

Mr. Lorcán O'Toole

Mr. Doris and Mr. Scallan and I will answer parts of the questions which have been asked, so forgive us if we cross over each other. Senator Ó Domhnaill asked whether we had views on the interaction between the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and the National Parks and Wildlife Service. As a field worker on the periphery I feel that for the past 20 or 30 years, probably for very good reasons, both have had different constituencies and their focus has not been aligned. Perhaps if they brought their focuses more into alignment they would realise they have much more in common. I will not be drawn on whether it is right or wrong, but I am sure there is a perception of a lack of communication from the conservationist side. One receives a letter which uses what is perceived as authoritarian language. We need better communication from the wildlife people.

My view is that at times the agrifood sector believes the wildlife sector is a constraint. It is poor wildlife management and conservation if this is the case. Farmers and foresters own 70% of the land and it is a fallacy that conservationists will improve wildlife. One must work with the people who own and work on the land and this is a real challenge. At times we do not find enough common ground. The Burren and Boleybrack project are great examples of communities and all sectors coming together. At the rural development conference in Croke Park in 2009, Dr. Ciaran Lynch from LIT, Thurles stated there was a noticeable lack of co-operation between environmentalists and farmers. This is happening throughout Europe so we do not need to beat ourselves up about it. This is due to historical and financial reasons and it is a challenge. If we have more prescriptions without the underlying issues being tackled it will be a lost opportunity.

Some people's blood pressure might rise at the suggestion, but in 20 or 30 years time could the National Parks and Wildlife Service be within a department of lands which would not be concerned with food production but with landscape management? During the presentation on the Burren the Chairman mentioned this would be a wider concept. Bord Bia states it is what the consumer expects and we must stay ahead of our competitors, whether they are in Scotland, Belgium or Germany, because if they feel people want green produce they will go after the market. We must act now. Fáilte Ireland also states it is important. Landscape management should not be separate from wildlife management and food production. We must have more synergy or cohesion.

Deputy Ferris mentioned incentives and I believe they are crucial. One can see how the landscape has changed in Donegal. Those in Teagasc and others are better placed than I am to advise the committee on this. Above and beyond incentives, I know a large number of small farmers in the north west, and I am sure committee members have met them, who I am sure even if they had no money would still be farming. Sligo Institute of Technology has conducted research on this connection between these people and the land. Farmers should be given more of a role. I have not seen any published references to this, but I imagine that at times some small farmers and those in their early 20s and 30s who are considering whether to take over the farm will say not only financial issues arise. At present in some areas it is not very cool to be a small farmer. Perhaps we should be telling them they have a really big role to play in producing food, and looking after the landscape and our heritage. Approximately 100 years ago we had a rebirth of our cultural heritage. We probably need a rebirth of our natural heritage.

Deputy Ó Cuív asked whether we are out on our own. I do not feel we are and that there is growing support among the public. Going back to conflict and bad communication, why is there an urban rural divide? Why do we discuss what one can do on one's private property and society's needs? Golden eagles are in big trouble from poisoning because we brought in fewer birds. Despite all the poisoning I believe white-tailed eagles will get a foothold. I invite the committee to see a nest along Lough Derg or in Kerry and to see the reaction of the general public. The vast majority of landowners and schoolchildren in County Kerry are very supportive of the white tailed eagle project. We got off to a rocky start, which I could spend the day discussing with the committee, but the majority of people in Kerry are supportive of the project. To see young children in Mountshannon in County Clare looking at the white tailed eagle nest was fantastic. It is encouraging to see normal people, instead of the green welly brigade, enjoying their rural area.

The final challenge is to find ways of meeting when there is no conflict. All too often wildlife people and farmers meet during a conflict or at a point of stress. Going back to the rural development conference at Croke Park, it was suggested we should find opportunities to speak more often, such as at this meeting. I believe there is a certain amount of entrenched positions in the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and the National Parks and Wildlife Service and these must be understood. Many of these are driven by a lack of resources. Perhaps the National Parks and Wildlife Service could have more agricultural experts and the Department could have more wildlife experts. I would like to hear the views of Teagasc on this. Perhaps that organisation could try to bring them together, because the challenge is to try to get everything working together in rural Ireland to benefit everybody.

Small farmers have a huge role to play. From a wildlife point of view the golden eagle population will be in serious trouble without sheep farmers in Donegal. It is a predatory animal but communication is very important. Some people will say we are too focused. I do not state I have all the answers because I am sure I do not and there is much expertise here. The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine attended the initial steering group meeting held at the Mountaineering Council of Ireland's offices and made a presentation. It is not driving the matter as it, along with other sectors with varying points of view, made a presentation.

Mr. David Scallan

To return to the question on implementation, in its joint submission the national uplands working group advocates a tiered system for the scheme. This would have three tiers, comprising the single farm payment, greening and cross compliance on one tier; a basic agri-environment scheme covering hedgerows and stone walls on another; and above and beyond these a tier where schemes such as this would fit quite well. It would have a voluntary component targeted at farmers to maintain the high nature value of their farms. Much of this is based on what the committee heard several weeks ago on the Burren farming conservation programme, which is a very successful cost-effective programme. It is recognised nationally and internationally as being a good outputs-driven way to incentivise farmers to do work. It involves very simple farm plans, which is the only way a scheme of this nature could work and be administered. To reduce the burden and cost of such schemes, they should be administered under one system.

There were a couple of other questions. If we want to initiate the scheme we have a good chance at the moment due to CAP reform and the Department conducting a public consultation on the matter. There is a very effective amount of energy now in place and a diverse range of stakeholders and semi-State agencies have calling for the scheme to be established. It would be bad to miss this opportunity particularly as the uplands have been neglected from an agri-environment point of view in recent years.

A good question was asked about predator control. A lot of work in the UK on upland birds, where habitat management like heather regeneration was combined with predator control, has shown good results for red listed birds such as red grouse, breeding curlew and golden plover. Predator control will also improve the ecological conditions for a range of other bird species including birds of prey. My colleague, Mr. Sean Doris, shall briefly respond to a good question asked about the NARGC position on mink.

I have a few questions on the scheme. Has the NARGC researched the scheme? Does it know how many people will qualify? What level of funding is required to make the scheme financially viable?

Mr. David Scallan

The short answer is "No". The scheme is at a youthful stage and we hope that the Department will issue another public consultation that specifically deals with agri-environment. My organisation and the national uplands working group would then be in a much better position to deal with costed proposals. It would also be better able to examine specific ways to implement the scheme, for example, in terms of the incentives offered and how they will be paid on a per hectare basis. For the moment we have brought the concept to the committee and stress that this is a great opportunity for the Department.

Mr. Sean Doris

Deputy Ferris asked whether there is a bounty for mink and how is the scheme panning out. We obtained money through the NPWS and the Department of Arts, Heritage and Gaeltacht Affairs. The scheme is 12 months old and we have submitted figure returns to the Minister, Deputy Deenihan. We have a budget to make a bounty payment for the invasive species known as mink. Our gun clubs at grassroots level have targeted mink for over 30 years which is when they first became a visible presence on the landscape. Thankfully, after years of trying, we have a bounty scheme that works well and we have the figures to prove it. The association welcomes the scheme.

The incentive may be small but it is still an incentive and Deputy Ferris touched on incentives. He wondered how does one progress anything without incentives. Progress can be made using incentives but they are not the be-all and end-all. Good co-operation already exists between the farming community and the NARGC's gun club structure because it reaches parish level. There is a gun club in virtually every parish in the Republic and they work. The ethos of any gun club is that it must work with the farmer. If a gun club did not work with a farmer it would be left without a place to hunt, shoot or conserve. Gun clubs are conservationists first because if we do not look after the habitats we will not have any quarry species to hunt. In addition, the pest control of all of the invasive species must be controlled, and is controlled, at gun club level. All of that involves the co-operation of farmers. Before one puts a magpie cage or conducts a day's hunting on someone's land one must first have the permission of the landowner. The scheme works well but there has been a breakdown in communication at national level. The NARGC, as a national organisation, would welcome the opportunity to sit down with national organisations like the IFA, etc. On the ground people in the NARGC and the IFA work together. If that co-operation is not shared the whole way upwards then there is a break in the chain and my organisation would welcome an improvement. If we wish to push the scheme forward then we must work together.

I acknowledge the first class work has been done by Mr. O'Toole and the Golden Eagle Trust Limited. I know that the same work goes on in other counties. The buy-in by local farmers and their total co-operation is first class. When one uses a different way to do something one can get a different result and that is what this is all about.

Another issue is the amount of money involved. This year there is about €185 million in the pot for the disadvantaged area scheme. The new agri-environment options scheme, AEOS, is being launched with an expected uptake by between 3,000 to 6,000 with €6,000 in the pot. The AEOS scheme opened in 2011 with €10 million available with a maximum individual payment capped at €4,000 and it was made available to up to 5,000 farmers. It is small enough money in the overall scheme of things. The Department has a big pot of money. There is money available under the rural development programme. A lot of the rural development fund allocated to Ireland under the current scheme might be returned to Europe and it will not be used. We have a real opportunity here if we devise a proper scheme. We must give the people who live in a rural area a proper scheme. Let us have a proper scheme. The Vice Chairman lives on arable land in the south. What if one lives in marginal areas like myself and Senator Ó Cuív? I am referring to places in Leitrim, Donegal and Sligo where there are small farms to whom a few thousand euro would make a huge difference. The money would keep a farmer on his or her land and away from claiming social welfare which would mean a move away from the land. Emigration is another alternative.

The organisations have done an excellent job. Please keep up the good work. Their presentations have been informative and feed into the committee's work programme.

As there are no further questions I thank the delegations for their informative presentations. Their work has been enlightening.

The joint committee adjourned at 6.30 p.m. until 9.30 a.m. on Thursday, 14 February 2013.