Irish Farmers with Designated Land (IFDL) have criticised the new hen harrier scheme for not honouring promises made to them in 2007, when their land was first designated. They say that when the farmers were approached about designation in 2003, they were given assurances that they would be compensated for any loss of land values. This never happened and the new action-based scheme does not address the issue.
Jason Fitzgerald of IFDL provided That's Farming with a copy of the original agreement between government and farmers. This document (titled “Agreement between the Government and Farming Organisations on Review of Implementation of Habitats Regulations 1997”) states: “Capital compensation for a loss in land value will be payable to the extent that it arises from restrictions on farming or another existing land use..[..] The compensation payable will be the difference between pre-designation value and the post-designation value. In the event of disagreement on the amount of such compensation, there will be recourse to arbitration.”
A new “locally-led” €35m hen harrier scheme was announced in October 2015. IFDL members hoped it would fulfil the promises given in 2007. But as €10m of this money is to be devoted to saving the freshwater pearl mussel and the scheme's administration is expected to cost 16-17% of the remainder, this leaves around €20m to be distributed among an estimated 2,000 participants. According to Fitzgerald, the costs of participation will cancel out the financial benefits.
“Not alone is it going to be action-based, not alone is it not going to reward people for having land in it, but it's probably going to cost as much to carry out those actions as you're going to get for them, so it's going to be cost-neutral at best,” said Fitzgerald. “Our land was designated and we were promised compensation on the basis of income that was lost as a result of the designation, the work that [we had to] carry out and also for the consequences of the notifiable action and the restrictions on the land,” he added.
In his own experience, designation prevented Fitzgerald from being able to sell his farm to purchase a dairy unit, because his own land “didn't even get a bid.” He said, “it's only when you need to go to the bank to borrow, or when you need to sell, or transfer for that matter, that you realise the impact designation has had [on land values].”
This impact was confirmed by Mallow estate agent Liam Mullins. He told That's Farming: “There's no question that designation has hurt land prices. Who wants to buy land that you cannot farm for all the restrictions, cannot plant with trees or put wind turbines on? Non designated forestry land is worth €5,400 per acre, while for designated land you'd be lucky to get €1,500. Is it any wonder that people around here are beginning to hate the hen harrier?”
Forestry and Wind Farms
IFDL are also upset that farmers in designated areas were promised they could plant portions of their land with forestry. Fitzgerald says that objections from wildlife groups to the planting of forestry within designated areas led to a rethink and the planned forestry deal was reneged on in 2011. Of 9,060ha of promised plantation allowances under the 2007 agreement, only 1,188ha had been planted by 2016. Fitzgerald said, “this is why the whole thing has gone wrong.” When the option of planting portions of their land was closed off, farmers lost their main recourse for alternative income streams.
Wind farms have also become a bone of contention. IFDL say that Coillte have been developing wind installations on lands abutting designated farmers, while the farmers themselves are prevented from tapping this potential source of income.
Fitzgerald said: “Farmers inside in designated areas, they're not allowed to put up wind turbines. But Coillte are. There's one [wind farm] back the road here at the Cork/Kerry border, just where the Blackwater rises. There's 28 wind turbines gone in there inside of one of the most successful breeding grounds for hen harriers in the country. Now, not only have they not had their land devalued, because there were already trees growing there, but they got a bonus then for every turbine put in there.”
“There's about 40,000ha of rough grazing in the designated areas that have been devalued,” said Fitzgerald. “One thing that we have asked is that every farmer be given a letter to know if they wanted to stay in or get out at this stage. Because they were conned. They were completely conned at the time. You're talking about the lowest-income farmers, on the hardest type of land to farm. Not only was it bad enough that they had to try to farm that wet, rushy ground but all these restrictions were laid down on top of them then and their land completely worthless as a result of it.”
We will have the response of conservation organisations here next week.
You can see a map of the affected areas here: