I thank Senator Daly. I apologise on behalf of the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Coveney, who is unable to be here.
In order to make the necessary savings under the 2012 disadvantaged areas scheme, DAS, in view of the reduction in budgeted expenditure from €220 million to €190 million, technical adjustments must be made to the scheme's criteria. These changes will ensure that aid payments are focused on farmers whose farming enterprises are situated exclusively in DAS areas and who are making a significant contribution to achieving the objectives of the scheme, which are defined in the governing EU legislation as follows: to ensure continued agricultural land use and thereby contribute to the maintenance of a viable rural community; to maintain the countryside; and to maintain and promote sustainable farming systems, taking particular account of environmental protection measures. However, rather than simply applying an across-the-board cut to the rates payable or reducing the maximum payable area as a means to achieving these savings, the Minister decided that real efforts should be made to focus the scheme on those farmers who are most actively contributing to achieving the aims of the scheme. Making technical adjustments to the scheme criteria ensures that the aid payment is focused on farmers whose farming enterprises are situated exclusively in less favoured areas and who are making a significant contribution to achieving the objectives of the scheme.
Any analysis of the scheme must take into account the impact of the various enterprises on the local economy. As is clearly evident, the main benefits arise from beef rearing, dairying and sheep breeding enterprises. There are an increasing number of applicants under the scheme who have discontinued livestock — that is, cattle or sheep — farming but continue to benefit from aid under the scheme by grazing some horses on their land.
It is widely recognised that the disadvantaged areas scheme is a very important one for the country, especially from an economic perspective, as it contributes to the support of in excess of 100,000 farm families. Therefore, in proposing the changes in question the intention is to better focus the scheme which is to the benefit of the majority of those farming in areas with recognised constraints, while at the same time attempting to cater for those genuinely prevented from achieving the revised minimums.
With the intention of targeting those farmers farming exclusively in disadvantaged areas, it is suggested farmers whose holdings consist of land situated in both disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged areas are in a better farming position than those farming exclusively in disadvantaged areas. Therefore, it is proposed that where some of an applicant's declared land is disadvantaged and his or her main holding is in a non-disadvantaged area, a digressive rate of aid will be payable under the scheme. This digressive payment does not affect applicants whose main holding is in a disadvantaged area. This proposal is regarded as fair in that the greater proportion of less favoured areas land in the holding, the greater the payment.
In so far as the specific changes concerning the eligibility of horses for inclusion in the stocking density are concerned, while horses in general will no longer be automatically eligible for inclusion in the stocking density calculation, on the basis of the contribution equine breeding enterprises make to the local economy, horses on such enterprises will continue to be eligible. In consultation with the relevant stakeholders, equine breeding enterprises have been defined as follows: an applicant must, in the first instance, be an equine breeder and have bred a foal, from a mare registered on the applicant's holding in 2011, in either 2009, 2010 or 2011 which was registered in a stud book approved by my Department and with pedigree recorded; the premises of all who meet this criterion must be registered with the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine in accordance with SI 8 of 2012, Diseases of Animals Act 1966 (Registration of Horse Premises) Order 2012.
Where these criteria are met, the following equines will be eligible for inclusion in the stocking density calculation for the 2012 scheme: all equines aged from one to five years, aged using the date 1 January and registered in the name of the applicant and maintained on his or her holding; breeding mares, registered as having been on the applicant's holding in 2011, that have bred an appropriately registered foal in either 2009, 2010 or 2011. I am, however, particularly mindful that any proposed change in the scheme's qualifying criteria, regardless of how focused and targeted the aim, will result in anomalies, because of which specific provision will be made for those farmers who may find that their stocking rates are lower than are now required. Specifically, I have directed that a formal procedure be put in place to cater for all who consider that their inability to meet the proposed revised scheme requirements is due to force majeure or exceptional circumstances. Those affected will be invited to outline such details to my Department and each case will then be considered on its merits. With specific regard to the proposed stocking provisions, where individuals can show that their inability to meet the revised requirements is due to their participation in a recognised environmental programme, for example, the necessary allowance will be made. Consideration will also be given to new entrants to farming.
As the disadvantaged areas scheme is co-funded by the European Union under the rural development programme for the period 2007 to 2013, it is necessary to obtain the agreement of the European Commission to any proposed change. Departmental officials have been involved in ongoing discussions with Commission officials in this regard and a decision is awaited. It should be noted that the proposed criteria may be subject to some changes following the conclusion of the discussions with the Commission. Pending a response from the Commission, it was considered necessary and desirable to advise farmers formally of the proposed changes, given the imminent closing date for applications. To alert farmers, the terms and conditions were posted on my Department's website, a press notice was published in the farming press and terms and conditions booklets were issued to each landowner whose farm was wholly or partially classified as disadvantaged.