AERIAL mapping, using the latest satellite technology, has led to unexpected deductions for alleged overpayments in grant entitlements for Clare farmers, it has emerged this week.
Cash-strapped Clare farmers, who are already left reeling from a dramatic hike in production costs and falling prices due to the atrocious weather conditions, have been hit with unexpected cuts in their annual income from the Rural Environmental Protection Scheme (REPS), the Single Farm Payment and the Disadvantaged Area Scheme. The cuts have ranged from €1,000 to €2,500, depending on overall acreage.
The latest blow from the Department of the Agriculture comes hot on the heels of the estimated loss, on average, of €6,000 per farmer when all the cutbacks in the disadvantaged area, suckler cow, installation aid, farm retirement and REPS payments are taken into account.
The Clare Champion has learned that the department has subjected land-holdings to stringent scrutiny, omitting buildings, scrub, gorse and roads from its overall calculation of acreage.
Clare IFA chairman, Michael Lynch said that the use of aerial mapping to assess payments under schemes was causing a “serious problem” for Clare farmers in a year where margins in all sectors were extremely tight.
Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Tony Killeen, said that some farmers had forgotten to exclude farm buildings and non-grassland areas when they were submitting their claims, while others had carried this out from the start.
Stating that the department clarified the exclusion of scrubland from schemes about two years ago, following representations he had received from landowners in the Burren, Deputy Killeen said he believed the appeals’ system was a reasonable and transparent system.
The Clare Fianna Fáil Deputy confirmed that he had discussed the impact of the bad weather on farmers with Agriculture Minister Brendan Smyth, who is aware of difficulties this posed for them and had extended the season for slurry spreading.
Mr Lynch warned that the current scenario is extremely unsatisfactory for Clare farmers, who had budgeted to receive a certain income from grants to defray increased expenses, only to see this dramatically reduced without warning.
Urging all farmers who felt they were being wrongly penalised to lodge an appeal with the Department of Agriculture within the specified 30-day period, he claimed that subsequent land inspections had found that mistakes were made with aerial mapping.
He also suggested that aerial photographs taken from a long distance could be misleading in some instances where grassland was prevalent underneath trees and other foliage.
His concern is shared by Councillor Pat Hayes, who pointed out that farmers had submitted official Land Registry maps in good faith to the department and weren’t genuinely aware that buildings and non-grassland or forage areas had to be excluded in their calculation for grant payments.
Councillor Hayes expressed concern that the cumulative impact of these penalties represented between 15% and 20% of payments as the department made deductions over four years for the Single Farm Payment and two years for the Disadvantaged Area Scheme.
“Land owners were not aware they were over-claiming. In some cases old disused roads covered in grass and land covered with rushes, which couldn’t be cut due to the bad weather, were removed from the overall calculation.
“In many cases there is a lack of clarification about the precise location of the land being removed and the reason for the deduction, which is not satisfactory. This is causing a big problem for farmers at a time they are really struggling,” he said.
The Department of Agriculture hadn’t responded to a Clare Champion query at the time of going to press.