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Farmers in a flap over ‘worthless’ land

Hundreds of farmers in North East Clare and South Galway are in a flap over the designation of land for the protection of the hen harrier, which has rendered an estimated 9,844 acres “worthless”.

Feelings are running high among landowners in the Sliabh Aughty area, which has the dubious distinction of having the largest designation to safeguard this protected species under an EU directive.

As a new farming group, Irish Farmers With Designated Land (IFDL) briefed deputies and members of the Oireachtas Agricultural Committee on the difficulties that landowners are experiencing due to this designation at a meeting in Dublin this week, local farmers said they are mounting an intensive campaign for change.

Frustration and anger over the Government’s decision to suspend the previous compensation scheme in 2010 due to budgetary constraints, will be voiced at a public meeting in Ballinakill, County Galway on Tuesday next at 8.30pm.

Farmers’ efforts to receive adequate compensation for the devaluation of their land is being supported by Deputy Timmy Dooley, who believes the current provisions are not adequate for farmers who have been badly hit by this designation.

Deputy Dooley said new provisions should be put in place to compensate farmers for the fact that they cannot plant marginal or poor land or develop windfarms.

Councillor Pat Hayes said there was no point in putting any designated land

Councillor Pat Hayes is concerned that farmers aren't being adequately compensated.
Councillor Pat Hayes is concerned that farmers aren’t being adequately compensated.

for sale on the open market, as no one would buy it.

The Fianna Fáil councillor said there is a need for Government to develop a new project, like Burren Beo, to support the retention of farmers on designated land in a bid to prevent further rural depopulation. He also queried the impact of EU directives on districts like the Sliabh Aughty area.

While the IFDL is  supportive of the birds directive and understands the necessity for the designation, it said farmers are concerned and annoyed that the designation, as it is presently constructed, is restricting their farming practice and are experiencing financial loss.

The designation was set up by government under the birds directive, which provides for comprehensive protection for all wild birds naturally occurring in the EU.

In November 2007, the National Parks and Wildlife Service designated 167,111 hectares of land under this directive in mainly upland regions of Kerry, Cork, Limerick, Tipperary, Laois, Offaly and Monaghan, as well as about 4,000 hectares in Clare and South Galway.

IFDL chairman Liam O’Keeffe explained the maximum extra payment available to a landowner with designated land is €2,000, which he said is completely inadequate considering the restrictions attached to the designation under the hen harrier GLAS Scheme.

In fact, he pointed out that landowners with less than 13.5 hectares get no extra payment for having their land designated.

He said landowners in designated regions cannot get permission to plant their land or carry out a windfarm development. This is despite the fact that practically all of the designated land for hen harrier protection in the Sliabh Aughty region  is situated in upland areas, on which forestry or wind development is often the only viable farming activity that can take place.

he sale price for land suitable for forestry is sold for €4,000-€4,500/acre.

“Where this type of land comes up for sale in designated regions, generally bids will not be received, which effectively renders the land worthless. At all of the many meetings that were organised by IFDL over the past eight months, it is very evident that communities are devastated by the realisation that the value of their land has disappeared,” Mr O’Keeffe stated.

“This will result in farmers abandoning some of these lands and moving from their communities, which will have a negative effect on the hen harrier habitat over a period of years,” he added.

Mr O’Keefe warned “the total devaluation of land due to this designation is a unique feature of this particular issue” and that the group is adamant that Government must put measures in place immediately to deal with this.

He proposed that a tax credit could be attached to all lands in hen harrier regions, which would have the effect of immediately restoring land values. “In many states in the US and Canada, tax credits are often attached to designated land property. Attaching carbon credits to the land is another possible solution which could restore land values in hen harrier regions.

“The issue of compensation is also a critical issue and one which needs urgent attention from the Government,” he continued.

In 2007, the government offered compensation of €350/hectare up to 40 hectares and €25 above 40 hectares. This was seen as reasonable at the time but on the understanding that forestry would be generally permitted on hen harrier designated lands. However, in 2010, the government dropped the scheme due to budgetary constraints. It has left landowners with no compensation scheme for the past five years.

“This is totally unacceptable and it’s our view that the Government is not addressing the problem with the urgency that’s required.

“The group is now seeking to re-instate the hen harrier scheme, which was in place in 2008, with some very important amendments. Our proposal seeks a payment through the scheme of €370/hectare for all land farmed in the hen harrier area.

“We are also seeking an additional payment of €150/hectare for the first 13.5 hectares which are farmed in accordance with the hen harrier scheme,” said  Mr O’Keeffe.

Dan Danaher

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