Farming groups and a local deputy have branded the announcement that illegally burnt land must be removed from Basic Payment Scheme (BSP) applications as "unacceptable" and "cruel".
In recent weeks vast swaths of land across the Border region, including parts of West Cavan near the Burren and in Co Leitrim, have succumbed to gorse fires, causing extensive damage to local habitat and costing tens of thousands worth of loss to commercial forestry.
Commenting on the spate of recent fires, Agriculture Minister for State Andrew Doyle, warned that his Department was analysing current satellite imagery against "historic" images to identify illegally burnt land during the closed season - from March 1 to August 31.
"Agricultural and eligible forestry land identified as burnt illegally as part of this investigation will be deemed ineligible for payment under the 2017 Basic Payment and other area-based schemes,” warned Minister Doyle.
He outlined that farmers with land affected are obliged to amend their applications for the BSP accordingly.
“My Department will not tolerate incidences of illegal burning of land and will take all necessary actions to ensure compliance with the conditions of the various EU funded area-based schemes, including reducing payments and penalties where applicable,” said Minister Andrews.
His comments do not appear to distinguish between farmers who burn their own land illegally as a clearance measure, and trespassers who maliciously commence blazes on farmland.
Colm O’Donnell of the Irish Natura & Hill Farmers Association (INHFA) described the advice to remove burnt land from BSP applications as “ill advised, confusing and potentially very costly to these farmers, families and communities”.
O’Donnell said Minister Andrews “must clarify immediately” what he means.
“As it is our understanding that where the applicant (farmer) is found at inspection to be responsible for breaching their requirements, only then can a penalty be applied. So in this instance it would have to be proven that the farmer lit the fire”, said Mr O’Donnell.
Victim of burning
Mr O’Donnell cited comments made by Dr Kevin Smyth, Assistant Secretary General, Department of Agriculture at a Joint Oireachtas Committee hearing in April 2015. Asked about illegal burning Dr Smyth reportedly said: “No farmer who is a victim of burning with somebody else having set the fire will be penalised. I know that a number of fires had nothing to do with gorse removal. Some of them were sheer vandalism and nothing else. We will deal with such cases on the basis of force majeure. I can give the Deputy an assurance in that regard.”
Mr O’Donnell concluded: “As we understand it, what he [Dr Smith] said still stands. However for the many innocent farmers who are now fearful of losing some or all of their farm payments, immediate clarity and reassurance needs to be given by Minister Doyle that only those who lit the fire have anything to fear.”
Speaking to the Celt local TD Martin Kenny said that the threat to the payments has caused "widespread shock and confusion" among farmers, many of whom are already "struggling to cope" as a result of the recent illegal burning of their land.
The Sinn Féin party spokesperson on agriculture is now seeking an urgent meeting with the minister to ask him to "rescind his instruction".
"It is a simplistic, inefficient, and cruel way to deal with the victims of the illegal burning in past weeks to exclude them from payments solely on the basis of satellite images without any regard for the farmers who did not burn their land illegally, were the victims of fires they did not set, and did all in their power to prevent the burning of their land," he added.
The Minister advised that farmers who have included illegally burnt land in their 2017 Basic Payment Scheme application, already submitted to the Department, should now remove this land by means of submitting an Amendment Form prior to the closing date for receipt of amendments, i.e. May 31 or June 9 with penalty;
Inclusion of illegally burnt land in the 2017 Basic Payment Scheme application may result in reduced payment and penalties under this scheme and the other area-based schemes, e.g. Areas of Natural Constraints Scheme;
Where it is identified, as part of the current investigation, that lands were burnt during the closed season this may result in such land being inspected by Department officials.