Minister for Agriculture, Marine and Food,
Department of Agriculture, Kildare House,
14 March, 2011
Re: Unauthorised fencing of uplands
May we at the outset congratulate you as fellow Corkonians on your appointment as Minister for Agriculture? We hope over the time of your tenure to work closely with you to ensure that the growing awareness by Irish farmers of their environmental responsibilities will be nurtured and extended, opening up the Irish farm holding to new processes and ideas, particularly in terms of cooperation with the Department of the Environment and compliance with key deadlines that you and your colleagues will be facing under the Water Framework Directive over the next three years.
We write now, however, out of an urgent and specific concern over new requirements and enforcement of fencing requirements by your officials under the Single Area Payments Scheme and under the Rural Environmental Protection Schemes 3 & 4. These require the permanent fencing of lands habitually open to the public for ‘recreational purposes or as a means of access to seashore, mountain, lakeshore, riverbank or other place of natural beauty or recreational utility'.
Under the Planning and Development Regulations 2001, [S.I. No. 600/2001 - Planning and Development Regulations, 2001, Part II, 9 (1)(a)(x), quoted above] to fence these locations requires planning permission from the local authority. Mayo, Galway, and South Dublin County Development Plans have also reiterated this requirement in their Development Plans.
However, the recent letters issued to farmers from your Department insisting on the fencing of lands make no reference to this national legal requirement. A verbal check with Donegal County Council indicates that no such planning applications have been received for fencing in the last five years.
We understand the situation has been exacerbated by the need for farmers to spread the additional slurry now collected through the new facilities provided under the Farm Modernisation Scheme without exceeding the limits under the ‘Nitrates Regulations' for nutrient levels on spread lands.
Slatted House, Slurry Storage Tanks, and Mobile/Specialised Slurry Spreading Equipment were all projects which ranked in the Top Ten Farm Investment Structures by Grant Payments under Farm Improvement Scheme 2007 - 2010, according to the recently published Mid-Term Evaluation of the Rural Development Programme Ireland 2007-2013.
We have been informed that remote parcels of lands are being leased for these purposes from, for example, the State Forestry Board, Coillte Teoranata and these unenclosed upland areas submitted to the Department of Agriculture to give the appearance that sufficient hectareage is available to the farmer for slurry spreading.
We understand this practice is now wide-spread and is known colloquially as ‘map acres'. The leasing takes place solely to satisfy the requirements on maps and the land is generally left untouched. It is in part in response to this abuse that your Department has now enforced a requirement for permanent stock proof fencing for all lands under the Single Area Payment Scheme, apparently in the hope that this would make the practice uneconomical. It failed to do so.
The issue is not limited, however, to Area Aid Payments and has now been extended to REPs, where farmers have been advised that temporary fencing - electric fencing, for example - can no longer be used to ensure that cattle do not contaminate watercourses and are contained within even seasonally-used (‘booley') grant-aided lands.
Aside from issues of access, permanent stock-proof fences have other adverse environmental impacts. They may restrict the movement of wild animals with consequent fragmentation of habitat and detrimental impacts on biodiversity.
It is worth noting that the Department is informing callers that the increased stringency of the fencing requirements is required for disease control and that no exceptions will be permitted. Cattle, however, regularly ‘nose' through ‘stock proof' fences with the neighbouring herd, potentially transmitting bacterial and viral diseases. The only effective animal health fencing would require a cordon sanitare of circa 10 metres with fencing on both sides.
We have sought from Coillte Teoranata the extent of their lease/licensing and are writing to you asking you to ensure that any recipients of these funds over the last three years apply for retention permission from the respective local authorities and that from this point on, no payments will be made where the applicant can not show that he has the required planning permission.
The most recent audit report indicates that there are 125,000 farmers in receipt of Area Aid payments to a total of €1.25 billion.
Your previous experience as a Member of the European Parliament will no doubt allow you to appreciate the European legal perspective. EC Regulation 1782/2003 requires that ‘The full payment of direct aid should be linked with compliance with rules relating to agricultural land'. Section 10 further requires each recipient to ‘take the measures necessary to satisfy themselves that transactions financed by the ‘Guarantee' Section of the European Agricultural Guidance and Guarantee Fund (EAGGF) are actually carried out and are executed correctly, and prevent and deal with irregularities.'