Commonage and hill farmers on Achill Island who have had their payments cut by the Department of Agriculture due to gorse fires in the summer have vowed to appeal the decision.
In the past week, commonage farmers in Achill received letters stating that they have over-claimed on the Basic Payment Scheme and other farming schemes, and that their payments will be subsequently cut.
The farmers were told that gorse fires resulted in part of the commonage becoming ‘ineligible’ and that they could not claim payment for the burnt commonage.
A number of gorse fires broke out in Achill earlier in the summer, causing large areas of vegetation being burnt. The farmers affected are those with shares in the Dooega, Saula and the Mission Estate commonages.
At a branch meeting of the Irish Natural and Hill Farmers Association (INHFA) held in Achill last week, farmers expressed anger about being penalised for gorse fires they said they did not start. They stated that the vegetation grew back after a couple of weeks and that no credit was given to that or the fact it was farmers and locals who put out the fires.
“The reality is that the land was only ineligible for a couple of weeks,” explained Gerry Loftus, Chairman of Mayo INHFA, “and you are being penalised for the full year.”
One farmer told the meeting that he faces up to €600 in cuts, while local councillor Paul McNamara expressed concern that farmers in the Dooega commonage could lose all their payments due to the severity of the penalties.
Colm O’Donnell, the President of the INHFA was present at the meeting, and he told the farmers that there is a clause in the regulations that could be used to restore the full payment if they appealed.
“There is sufficient provision in the regulation that could mean farmers don’t have to take a cut if you can prove that they are not responsible for the non-compliance. If they can prove they are not responsible, they can rely on an EU regulation.
“It states that if a farmer can prove he has no act or part [in starting the fire] or [it was] beyond his control, or if the Department can satisfy itself the complainant is not responsible for the non-compliance, no penalty should apply.
“If they don’t use that clause to bail out the farmer, in effect what they are saying is the farmer is guilty. If they don’t, they are accusing you of a criminal act without any evidence,” he said.
‘Scruff of the neck’
The meeting heard that Achill was one of the first areas to receive such letters but Mr O’Donnell said farmers in other areas affected by burning will soon receive letters, and it will soon become a national issue. He advised the Achill farmers to appeal using ‘collective action’, as this will strengthen their cause.
Cllr Paul McNamara said some farmers were being advised by planners to take the cut because the loss was ‘insignificant’, but he added that these farmers could be affected by fire again next year.
“This needs to be taken by the scruff of the neck,” he said. “We can’t let them walk over us like this – and they will. To be told 20 percent of your payments are gone is serious, and very serious. This is not going to go away. It’s not. It’s going to be an ongoing problem, year in and out.”
Tiernaur farmer, John Moran echoed Cllr McNamara’s concerns. “This is the first place this has come out, and are we going to stand up and be counted. That letter could be hitting my door next year – there is no farmer who can say, my door isn’t going to be hit next year.”
There was a lively discussion on what could be done and it was overwhelmingly agreed that the decision would be appealed by the farmers.