A conference on hill farming in Killarney earlier this month heard that upland sheep farmers could become a thing of the past, unless new locally-led environmental schemes are introduced to make their livelihoods viable. Hill sheep farming operations lost €3,568 on average over 2015, but were propped up by average supports of €18,301.
Researchers from UCD and Teagasc said that current hill-farming practices are vulnerable to loss of supports such as Greening, Green Low-carbon Agri-environment Scheme (GLAS) and Areas of Natural Restraint (ANC) payments. This is because under EU regulations large areas of commonage for which farmers currently receive payments might become ineligible, if they are perceived to be “not actively farmed”.
ANC eligibility will be reformed in 2018 and the new focus is expected be on sustainability and environmental responsibility. Adaptation costs are to be offset by a €25m boost for ANC payments through the programme for Government. Upland farmers are expected to benefit from an increased proportion of national support which it is hoped will help to convince a new generation of hill farmers to stay on the land.
Income analysis indicates lower returns for hill sheep farmers than their lowland counterparts. Hill sheep farmers received average incomes of €14,743 per annum in 2015, while lowland sheep farmers averaged €16,582 in the same period. The study found that high dependence on subsidies made hill sheep farmers vulnerable to any changes in support mechanisms. Hill sheep farmers account for just 15% of Ireland's sheep flock, but under a new CAP upland farmers' share of national subsidies is expected to increase to 60% of the national average value.
The researchers said that locally-led environmental schemes such as Burren LIFE and the Blackstairs Farming Group are successful working models. These are seen as templates for schemes designed and implemented by community members working together to increase farming viability, in tandem with benefits to conservation of wildlife. EU funds are currently being redirected towards such schemes as against traditional intensification supports, especially in sensitive habitats such as uplands.
Participating farmers have been happy with the schemes, as they have the added benefit of tackling rural isolation by bringing local people together to work on common goals. Addressing issues of under-grazing and scrub management has revitalised farming and given rural communities confidence that they have a viable future.