Farm groups angered by scale of cuts ordered on commonage sheep


Sheep farmers who have been ordered by the Department of Agriculture and Food to reduce the number of sheep they are keeping on commonage have reacted angrily to the compulsory destocking notices.

The notices were issued about 10 days ago to over 6,000 farmers, many of them outside the five western seaboard counties where the compulsory scheme was first introduced in 1998. The aim of the scheme is to protect the environment from overgrazing.

Under the original scheme, commonage farmers in Mayo, Donegal, Galway, Kerry, Sligo and Clare were forced to reduce the flocks they had on commonage by 30 per cent to prevent overgrazing. The farmers were compensated for the loss of their ewe premiums and for the lambs which would have been born by an annual payment.

However, the scheme, called the "Commonage Framework Plan", ran into serious opposition from farmers when it was extended from the original counties to the rest of the State and demands for even deeper cuts were imposed on some areas, especially parts of Mayo.

While some Donegal farmers who had been ordered to reduce stock in 1998 were told that they could increase ewe numbers, other areas have not fared well. For the first time, sheep farmers in Wicklow, Kildare, Carlow, Waterford, Tipperary and Cork have been told to remove stock from commonage.

In Wicklow, for instance, farmers using commonage have been instructed to reduce their flocks by an average of 4.5 per cent, but the compulsory cuts are running at 34 per cent in Roundwood. In Cork, the deepest cuts have been ordered on the Beara Peninsula, where 30 per cent of sheep have to be removed. In the rest of the State, the figures vary from removal of one ewe in five on Mount Leinster to one in eight on The Curragh.

The Department of Agriculture and Food says that it has now surveyed 94 per cent of the State's commonage. It said that 60,000 ewe premium rights had been removed from farmers using commonage, but 20,000 ewe premums had been returned to areas which had been reduced in 1998.

The farming organisations, angered at the depth of the cuts, want a commonage appeals body to be set up immediately to review the scheme.

The Irish Farmers' Association claimed that the destocking ordered in some of the letters was based on misinformation. It said that it wanted total farm size to be taken into account when destocking was ordered and it maintained that the calculation should include shep sheds, which could alleviate stocking on commonages.

Mr John Deegan, of the Irish Cattle and Sheepowners' Association, claimed that "grave wrongs" were being visited on many hill farmers, especially those in Mayo, where the cuts would drive some farmers off the land.

"Things are far from satisfactory," Mr Deegan said. "The problems include farmers who, after compulsory destocking in 1998, are now being told that they are under-stocked and so are not entitled to disadvantaged-area-based payments."