Why fencing in our high mountain pastures is really the height of folly
Opinion: For walkers, there are now problems where there were none before
The Burren in Co Clare: why should we be destroying our most beautiful landscapes by erecting unnecessary and ugly wire fencing?
This is about the height of folly – literally and figuratively. Literally, it is the bizarre story of why farmers are wasting public and private money putting fences on the top of mountains, making beautiful places ugly. Figuratively, it is about the way, even in a national crisis, the authorities still have plenty of time for the worst kind of bureaucratic foolishness.
We are blessed on this island with breathtakingly beautiful coastal mountains, landscapes that lift the heart and cleanse the soul. But if you walk across these mountains or even look at them from the road, from the Blue Stacks in Donegal, through the Burren and all the way round to west Cork, you will see an inexplicable but apparently implacable blight. Thousands of feet up, where there is nothing else but bare rock and thin soil and harsh scrub, there are now miles of ugly high tensile wire. Over the past few years, the hills have been alive with the sound of sledge hammers driving in fence posts and horny-handed men stringing barbed wire between them.
Why could this be? I have to admit that when I’ve come across these monstrous constructions in the Burren, I’ve assumed them to be the result of the great Irish land madness: farmers saying “I’m going to stake out my personal territory even if it’s on the top of a windblown hill where, at best, a few sheep may graze.”
But I’ve been wrong. The strange truth is that farmers don’t want to do any of this. They’re being forced to do it by the authorities. Hard as it may be to credit, the State is forcing small hill farmers to use money they can ill afford just to make some of Ireland’s most beautiful places ugly. But this is not even the wackiest aspect of the story, for now the State has decided to use taxpayers’ money to subsidise the erection of these fences.
The problem lies with two of the terms and conditions for the single farm payment that comes from the EU and that forms the basic income of almost all small farmers. They read as follows: “There must be appropriate fencing for the farming enterprise. Appropriate fencing means stockproof fencing that will control the applicant’s animals and also the neighbouring farmer’s animals. In mountain/hill areas this generally means sheep fencing,” and “There must be defined external boundaries except in the case of commonage.”
You can see that this starts out as a perfectly sensible proposition: a farm should have properly defined and fenced boundaries. But when the farm is a hill farm that includes high areas of natural wildness and beauty where the only farming activity is the grazing of a few hardy sheep or (in the case of the Burren) cattle, the sensible proposition becomes the height of folly.
The word “generally” in the rules is presumably there to mean: do this except when it is obviously stupid. What could be more obviously stupid than forcing relatively poor small farmers to expend thousands of euro they can’t afford, along with hundreds of hours of back-breaking work, just to ruin walks and views and thereby damage tourism?
For walkers, the fencing causes problems where there were none before. There’s the problem of getting around or over fences though, in reality, an extra layer of absurdity is added by the fact that, in these exposed places, the fences tend to fall down anyway. More seriously, the fences create unnecessary tensions between walkers and farmers: once a mountain has been fenced farmers fear that they have become liable for insurance claims and walkers become “trespassers”.
This is a situation that calls for nothing more than common sense but common sense turns out to be vanishingly rare. In Northern Ireland, which operates under exactly the same EU rules, officials decided that there is no need to force hill farms to put fences up mountains. In the Republic, however, the Department of Agriculture has been withholding payments from farmers who don’t do it. This has devastating consequences: I’ve come across one case of a man who was inspected in 2011, found not to have put fences on the mountain and had three years’ payments totalling €90,000 withheld.
Farmers are rightly furious, so how do we solve the problem? By applying common sense? No, by appeasing the irate farmers with public money. In September, Minister for Agriculture Simon Coveney announced funding of “at least €1.5 million” for “the erection of certain types of sheep fencing in mountainous areas”. A farmer can get up 40 per cent of the cost, up to a maximum of €10,000. We can’t afford respite care for the parents of autistic children but we can spend “at least” €1.5 million putting barbed wire across the top of the Blue Stacks and Magillicuddy’s Reeks. Presumably when they all blow down, we’ll announce sheep fence refurbishment grants of at least the same again.
This is the kind of craziness you get when officials answer to nobody and Ministers unthinkingly obey the bureaucracy. The Minister could cut this mountain of madness tomorrow. Mr Coveney, tear down these fences.