Concerns identified by farming representative organisations
The following are the main points raised by the various farming representative organisations at the Consultative Committee:
Farmland in hen harrier areas tends to be relatively unproductive and there is a significant challenge in achieving an adequate income for farm families. Although specific restrictions on activities (ARCs) are few, farming activities are seen to be significantly curtailed by these designations.
It is seen as critical to farming in hen harrier areas that farming and forestry are allowed to co-exist. Farming representative organisations want restrictions on forestry removed. The premia under the Afforestation Grant & Premium Scheme are potentially a substantial and important income stream for farmers and operate on a 15-year contract basis which provides much greater security than a typical 5-year contract life for agri-environment schemes.
The application of rules on eligibility for the Single/ Basic Payment has been seen as penalising farmers who have or are managing their land in a way that is suitable for hen harriers, and complete clarity is required. It was frequently asserted that farmers who allow vegetation, such as heather and rushes, to grow to a height that is optimal for Hen Harrier are liable to penalties under the eligibility rules. There have been reports, including by NPWS to DAFM, that farmers have cleared important habitats on their farm (e.g. scrub, boggy areas, nest and roost sites) to maximise GLAS payments, as the existing habitats were deemed ineligible for Pillar 1 payments and thus GLAS payments also.
The basic value of land for farming in the uplands including SPAs is generally low. However, land value increases if it is eligible under the Afforestation Grant & Premium Scheme. If there is an automatic bar on the Scheme due to an SPA designation, not only are the grant and premiums not available, but the land is worth several times less and is likely to be difficult to sell. This impacts on potential income and also on the value of farms as collateral for bank loans. Farming organisations want to see the DAHG farm plan scheme re-introduced and DAFM agri-environment payments increased.
There is great concern that further restrictions might be placed on areas outside existing SPAs which surveys have shown are important for hen harrier.
Concerns were also expressed about the additional burden in relation to planning permissions and related matters and, more generally, that opportunities for farmers outside but close to SPAs are greater than those available to neighbouring farmers whose land is designated.
The challenge therefore is how best to achieve the long term survival of farmed habitats that suit the hen harrier while providing a reasonable level of income for farmers and recognising that farmers in general want to farm well, and many are keen to improve agricultural efficiency and output where possible. The uncertainty about eligibility of lands for the Single / Basic Payment Scheme is a driver for habitat loss or disimprovement.
Concerns identified by Forest Sector organisations
The forest sector is of the view that the current forestry-related protection measures being enforced within SPAs in Ireland, including the cessation of afforestation and restrictions on forest operations, may not be delivering hen harrier conservation solutions and seeks alternative approaches. The sector notes that successful conservation of the hen harrier in Ireland requires effective and meaningful consultation of all affected parties to ensure their buy-in to the process. The latter view is widely shared by members of the Consultative Committee.
The Forest Sector called for annual surveys of breeding hen harrier in SPAs, rather than the current 5-year cycle. If feasible this could reduce the “red zones” in which management operations are more strictly controlled.
The forest sector also opposes any restrictions on forestry in the non-designated areas that are important to hen harrier.
Concerns identified by eNGOs
The eNGOs consider that more SPAs for hen harrier should have been designated in the first instance, and assert that, as per EU case law in c-374/98 Basses Corbières, the 3 areas of concern should have been protected under Article 4(4) of the Birds Directive as if designated.
They argue that hen harrier SPAs are not performing, that some breeding populations are now unviable and are concerned that there are as yet no conservation objectives for hen harrier SPAs. They consider that populations outside of SPAs are equally under threat.
The eNGOs identify forestry as the main threat to the hen harrier in Ireland, and that there is too much forest in the SPA network, with no transparency on afforestation decisions. They support a review of the “red zone” procedure, but subject to seven conditions set out in their submission.
In their submissions, the discrepancy between the length of Forestry incentives and the typical period of Rural Development Plan infrastructural Investment schemes is listed as a critical issue, and that the RDP could and should provide for longer contracts. There should be local engagement to develop locally-relevant incentives for restorative land management.
On agriculture, the eNGOS consider the GLAS prescriptions for hen harrier should be revised. The capped GLAS payments are not a sufficient incentive for farmers and the cap should be removed. Because of eligibility issues, destruction of Hen Harrier habitat is continuing. Pillar I and II issues on eligibility should be resolved. There also needs to be an agri-environment scheme for wintering hen harrier.
Guidance on birds and wind energy development is needed, along with wind energy development impact assessment guidelines.
Finally, they argue for education of farmers and local communities for positive change.