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Minister Michael Creed, Seanad Statement, 28 January 2018

A Chathaoirleach,

Members of Seanad Eireann

I would like to thank you for the opportunity to address you today on the following important issues:

  • The current status of the ANC Scheme Review
  • Payments under the GLAS Scheme
  • The current Fodder situation, and,
  • Native Cattle Breeds

I’ll begin with the ANC Scheme, as you are no doubt aware, the ANC Scheme is one which farmers across the country are very familiar with and is an important support for many people.

The Areas of Natural Constraints (ANC) Scheme as it currently stands was introduced under the 2014-2020 Rural Development Programme as a replacement for the previous Disadvantaged Areas and Less Favoured Areas schemes which had been in place since 1975.   Payments under the ANC Scheme are an important support for farmers across the country in addressing cash flow issues and contributing to the continued growth and development of the agri-food sector.

The Scheme was originally introduced in 1975 in recognition of the fact that farmers in particular areas were faced with challenges relating to lower productivity and higher production costs than farmers in other areas where levels of ‘disadvantage’ were not as pronounced.  Given that the Scheme in various guises has been in place for over 40 years, it is no surprise that the farming community are very interested in how the scheme will develop in the coming years.

Previous Reviews of the Scheme

The original basis for the Scheme was based on addressing issues such as rural depopulation, threats to the conservation of the countryside, lower income levels, and the presence of lands which were more difficult to efficiently farm.  Since its introduction, the Scheme has been subject to a number of reviews at EU level and Ireland has been very successful over the course of those reviews in ensuring that areas facing particular difficulties and additional costs were included as eligible under the Scheme.

From the first review of the Scheme in 1976 through the fifth review in 1996 the amount of hectares in Ireland included as eligible under the scheme grew from just under 4 million hectares to over 5 million hectares.  At the same time, these reviews also resulted in more land being designated as having higher levels of disadvantage which attract higher levels of payment.  Thus, we can see that this Scheme has a long history of review and refinement since its introduction in Ireland.

The significant level of financial support delivered through the scheme in the years since 1975, and the changes in eligible land in Ireland as part of the various reviews, show a recognition of the fact that the challenges faced by farmers in certain areas pose a significant threat to the future viability of these farming communities.  The specific objectives of the ANC scheme are thus structured round themes such as

  • Ensuring continued agricultural land use, thereby contributing to the maintenance of a viable rural society
  • Maintaining the countryside, and
  • Maintaining and promoting sustainable farming systems which take environmental protection into account.

Payments under the Scheme

I am very aware of the importance of this scheme to the more than 95,000 farmers who receive the payment annually.  With this in mind, I have prioritised the efficient payment of the ANC Scheme in my Department in recent years.

At present the ANC Scheme is structured around a tiered payment structure.  Those farming on what is called “Mountain Type Land” receive €109.71 on their first 10 forage hectares, and €95.99 on remaining hectares up to a maximum of 34 hectares.  Farmers with land categorised as “More Severely Handicapped Lowland” are paid €95.99 per forage hectare up to a maximum of 30 hectares.  Finally, those with “Less Severely Handicapped Lowland” are paid €82.27 per forage hectare up to a maximum of 30 hectares.

As part of the negotiations of the new RDP, a new category was added to the Scheme in 2015.  In recognition of the particular barriers and costs that island farmers face, a new category of payment was introduced for off shore island farmers.  Farmers on off shore island now qualify for payments of €250 per hectare on the first 20 hectares, €170 per hectare on hectares 20-34, and €70 per hectare on hectares 34-40.

In 2017, payments under the Scheme began in mid September, and to date €201 million has been paid to some 94,000 farmers.  Along with the payment of €1.16 billion to some 122,500 farmers under the 2017 BPS, this is a very important financial support for the agri-food sector and for families in rural Ireland.

Programme for Government Commitment for an additional €25m in 2018

In light of the importance of the ANC, the Programme for Government included a commitment to provide an additional €25m for the Scheme in 2018.  I am pleased to confirm that this commitment was delivered in the context of Budget 2018.  There are a number of options for allocating this additional money in the 2018 Scheme – ranging from a flat rate increase, to a more targeted approach based on the levels of constraint faced by farmers in the Scheme.  The options in this regard are currently being considered, and I would expect to be in a position to commence the formal amendment of the RDP required to allocate this money shortly.  This amendment process will include consultation with stakeholders.

The Redesignation of eligible lands under the Scheme

Under the new Common Agricultural Policy finalised in 2013, the new Rural Development Regulation introduced a change in how eligible areas under the ANC scheme were to be defined.   The designation of eligible areas under these schemes to date has been based on a range of socio-economic factors.  These factors included:

  • Particular stocking density levels
  • Family farm income levels
  • Population density, and
  • The percentage to the total working population engage in agriculture

The change introduced in the new Rural Development Regulation required that, from 2018, eligible areas must instead be designated using a set list of bio-physical criteria.  The purpose for this change is linked to a concern at EU level that areas were not being designated as ‘disadvantaged’ in a consistent manner across the various Member States.

Following consultation at EU level, the date for the introduction of this new designation has been changed to 2019. The biophysical criteria set out in the legislation to underpin the new system of designation are:

  • Low temperature 
  • Dryness
  • Excess soil moisture
  • Limited soil drainage
  • Unfavourable texture and stoniness
  • Shallow rooting depth
  • Poor chemical properties
  • Steep slope.

My Department has commenced work on this project, and relevant technical experts are currently working on sourcing and analysing the data in relation to the new criteria. Department officials have also been in contact with the Joint Research Centre (JRC) and DG Agri in the EU Commission in relation to technical issues arising.  The ongoing analysis will identify areas deemed to be facing natural constraints, which will in parallel be subjected to a refinement process. 

A number of the criteria I have listed will not have an impact on the new designation in Ireland, while others will have a small impact.  In effect, the Irish process will be most impacted by Soil Drainage and Soil Moisture Excess.

At present, the technical work is ongoing and thus it is not currently possible to set out the final set of areas to be eligible for payment.  However, given the importance of the ANC Scheme in the Irish context, officials in my Department are continuing to engage with our colleagues at the EU level in order to ensure that the best possible outcome of this review is secured. 

I am also aware that many farmers will have a direct interest in the outcome of this process.  Accordingly, I would expect that there will be consultation with key stakeholders as this process develops further.

Moving on to the GLAS scheme:

The GLAS scheme is the most popular scheme ever run under a Rural Development Programme in Ireland. The original target of 50,000 participants was surpassed well ahead of the targeted date - such is the popularity of the scheme. Given that the first approvals under the scheme run from 1 October 2015 it is a remarkable achievement to have exceeded this target within a period of 15 months.

GLAS has a maximum annual payment of €5,000 under the general scheme with provision for payment up to €7,000 (known as GLAS+) where the farmer is required to give exceptional environmental commitments in a limited number of cases. Last year we paid out almost €200m on GLAS and have continued payments each week into the New Year.

GLAS, like previous agri-environment schemes supports participants in improving their agricultural productivity and practices in a sustainable manner. 

The scheme delivers overarching benefits to the rural environment and also addressed the issues of the mitigation of the impacts of climate change, the enhancement of biodiversity and the improvement of water quality. The scheme provides valuable support to participants who deliver public goods and environmental benefits that enhance the sustainability credentials of Irish agriculture.

The scheme is co-funded by the National Exchequer and the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development. As required under EU regulation two payments issue in respect of each year – the advance payment followed at a later stage by the balancing payment.  In 2016 and again in 2017 the advance payment represents 85% of the annual payment with a balancing payment being 15%.

There are currently 49,700 active participants and advance payments have already have issued to over 41,000 of these. This brings to €196m the amount paid out under GLAS since the start of 2017. When ineligible cases are deducted, this means that 88% of eligible applicants will have been paid. GLAS pay-runs are continuing on a weekly basis and more farmers will receive their 2017 advance this week.

In approximately 3,000 of the outstanding cases, applicants remain ineligible for payment until they complete the steps they must take before the Department can process their payment. There is nothing we can do to advance these payments until the applicant completes their obligations. In most of these cases this relates to outstanding documentation which they must submit. As soon as this is received and assuming everything is in order, my Department will move immediately to issue payments. The main issues include the need for Advisors to submit a farm Nutrient Management Plan to the dedicated online system, to commence a Commonage Management Plan in the case of participants with a commonage action and to submit the required documentation in the case of the Low Emission Slurry Spreading and Rare Breed actions.

Let me be very clear, many of these are not delayed payments as has been suggested. It is simply not possible for my Department to make these payments because the participants have not met the requirements.

The requirements are clearly set out in the Terms and Conditions and specifications of the scheme which were first published in October 2015. Also set out were the implications for not complying with the various requirements.

We are very keenly aware of the need to process all payments and to issue all payments without delay. Updates are published weekly on my Department’s website and clearly show that steady progress is being made in reducing outstanding cases.  While my officials are prioritising the clearing of cases and where a farmer has been contacted for additional information it is important that any such request is responded to as the information requested is essential to finalise all checks.

While the issue of payments is of the utmost importance it is also important that that we recognise what the scheme is delivering in terms of the environment and public goods.  It is also important to recognise the buy in to the scheme by the farming community in achieving the and, in some instances, surpassing the targets set out in the RDP.  These achievements include the fact that:

  • The low Input Permanent Pasture and the Traditional Hay Meadow actions are delivering over 350,000 hectare of divers grassland species 
  • 29,000 kilometres of river bank are managed to protect rivers from pollution under the Protection of Watercourses from Bovines and Riparian Margins actions
  • Over 200,000 hectares of farmland bird habitat managed to protect bird species
  • Over 20,000 hectares of Wild Bird Cover planted providing winter feed for farmland birds
  • Over 2million trees planted
  • Almost 5,000 farmers using new technologies to spread slurry
  • 10,000 hectare of arable land cultivated using Minimum Tillage techniques

These achievements will deliver public goods across the key areas of Water Quality, Biodiversity and Climate Change to be addressed under the scheme and will place Ireland in a positive position in discussions on future agri-environment schemes.

I understand that the matter of Cattle Breeds native to Ireland has been raised by Senators;

Let me say, my Department recognises that there are a number of rare breeds indigenous to Ireland which are emblematic of our farming and animal husbandry heritage. We are very conscious of the need to maintain biodiversity on a national as well as a global basis and that in a food producing context that objective inevitably faces an uphill struggle in the face of commercial pressure to produce more efficiently and at ever more competitive prices. 

There are 4 cattle breeds native to Ireland that fall under the heading ‘Rare Breeds’ – the Kerry, Dexter, Irish Moiled and Droimeann Breeds.   The management of these cattle breeds is co-ordinated by my Department with the assistance of a National Advisory Committee. There are a wide range of activities and services provided by my Department, in a number of areas to retain and promote these native cattle breeds.

My Department’s role in this area is defined in a number of international agreements such the Convention on Biological Diversity.

In its role in providing the characterisation of rare breeds, recording their inventory and in the monitoring of trends and associated risks my Department:

- assists with animal identification, registration and Herdbook activities. The operation of a herdbook that meets EU legislative requirements is a basic requirement for all breeds and my staff provides significant assistance to each Society in this regard.

- compiles animal data to monitor trends in animal numbers through an EU online database that is connected with all other EU countries.

- helps with the characterisation of the rare breed animals and their genetic evaluation; services  provided through ICBF or through Geneticists in Teagasc Moorepark. Significant funding is provided by my Department in this area. Each breed must have a breed conservation plan and there is a wide range of supports available in this area.

-operates a research fund that provides funding for DNA analysis and Genomic analysis which is essential in providing mating plans and checking for inbreeding. Funding for all rare breeds is provided out of this fund on a regular basis.

-funds the collection and storage of AI straws from rare bulls for future storage and use.

-My Department has provided funding for a number of native breeds conferences and festivals, and websites for breeds to promote their use and for the general education of breeders and stakeholders.

-It operates the National Advisory Committee for the management and conservation of genetic resources for food and agriculture which provides expert guidance on the best methods of conserving these breeds.

 

-The Advisory Committee on Genetic Resources for Food & Agriculture was established in 1996 to advise and aid in the development and implementation of plans aimed at achieving the development and utilisation of genetic resources, their identification, evaluation and conservation and their promotion and marketing. 

- My Department regularly participates in international and EU programmes aimed at co-ordinating the management of genetic resources.

In its role in providing for the sustainable use and development of rare breeds my Department:

- provides assistance in the preparation and implementation of the National Biodiversity Plan which has as an objective the conservation of Native cattle breeds.

-operates the Beef Data and Genomics Programme which both provides financial assistance to farmers keeping these breeds but also improves data collection.

-provides continued financial support to farmers in the GLAS scheme which provides targeted support of €200 per Livestock unit (cow) for these breeds. This is a significant support to these breeds.

- and it operates the Kerry cow scheme which provides direct assistance to farmers who keep animals of this breed.

And in its conservation role my Department provides help and support in a number of ways;

- The development of a conservation strategy for Ireland’s native rare farm animal breeds.

- The collection and storage of semen from all rare cattle breeds Kerry and Irish Moiled cattle with a view to creating a National Genebank, and

- The DNA typing of bulls in the Kerry Cattle herd book.

In summary, in partnership with owners of rare breed herds and Breed Societies, my Department implements a number of policies to help conserve and if possible, through the use of best practice  breeding methods, advice and engagement from my staff and State Agencies,  develop and enhance our national stock of rare breed animals. Those policies are supported by targeted financial support through certain grant schemes which help subvent the owners of rare breed herds with modest but important financial assistance which aims to compensate for the extra costs involved in maintaining these animals.

Finally, in relation to the issue of Fodder Shortages I can say at the outset that I am indeed aware that weather conditions for much of this autumn and early winter have been challenging for farmers in some parts of the West and North West in particular. Difficulties in harvesting fodder in some of these areas were compounded by the need to house livestock earlier than usual resulting in additional pressure on fodder supplies over the course of the winter. 

I addressed these challenges last autumn, by the early issue of farm payments together with those under the Areas of Natural Constraints Scheme. Together, these schemes injected over €1.3 billion into the Irish rural economy by the end of last year and are providing a very welcome boost for Irish farm families and will help to finance additional fodder purchase where necessary.

At this time I also requested Teagasc, through its farm advisory service, to identify farmers who would be most at risk of running out of fodder and provide them with support to carry out fodder budgeting on their farms and explore all viable options to ensure that they had sufficient feed for the coming winter.

As a further response I convened a Fodder Group last December, chaired by Teagasc, to ensure a co-ordinated response to the fodder problem across all the main stakeholders. The Group included representation by local Teagasc staff, feed merchants, co-ops, banking and the farming bodies. This group met again earlier this month and reported back through my officials on the situation on the ground.

While I believe that fodder remains available across the country, I am nevertheless conscious that a key issue to resolve is the cost of transporting fodder between those areas where it is available and those where it is scarce.

To address this problem I am introducing a Fodder Transport Support measure to provide additional assistance to those livestock farmers most severely affected by the prolonged wet weather last autumn, mainly in parts of the West and North West.

Farmers, who have an identified fodder shortage, having completed a fodder budgeting exercise with their agricultural advisor, will be eligible to receive a financial contribution towards offsetting the costs of transport of fodder in excess of 100 km. As fodder is traded between farms on a regular basis, it is essential that the support measure is targeted at those who most need it and does not impact on the normal functioning of the market for fodder and for this reason a minimum transport distance applies. Eligible applicants will receive a transport contribution of €8 per standard bale of hay or straw for feeding, and €12 per standard bale of silage or haylage.

Financial assistance under the Fodder Transport Support Measure is payable in accordance with Commission Regulation (EU) No 1408/2013 on de minimis aid in the agricultural production sector.  

While this measure builds on my early supports to farmers through prioritisation of farm payments, and the convening of a Fodder Group, I urge affected farmers to avail of the additional fodder budgeting support being provided by Teagasc.

This measure will apply until April 20th 2018. Application forms and details on the operation of the measure will be available from my Department in the coming days

I would like to thank the members of the Seanad again for the opportunity to brief you on these very important issues for the farming community.

ENDS