Adjournment Debate. - Agriculture in Connemara.

Wednesday, 7 May 1986

Dáil Eireann Debate
Vol. 366 No. 1

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An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Thomas J. Fitzpatrick  Zoom on Thomas J. Fitzpatrick  Deputy Frank [257] Fahey was given permission to raise on the Adjournment of the House the serious position of agricultural business in Connemara. He has 20 minutes.

Mr. F. Fahey: Information on Frank Fahey  Zoom on Frank Fahey  First, I would like to express my appreciation to you, Sir, for your permission to raise the question of the present state of agriculture and the position the farmers find themselves in in Connemara. I consider this to be a most urgent problem. I have to be strong in my criticism of Government inaction towards agriculture particularly in Connemara. The position has become serious. In fact, it has become an emergency in recent weeks because of the very high level of fatalities particularly among hill sheep and cattle.

I am glad to note that the Army will be taking fodder to Connemara in the coming days. That is a welcome development. However, that is only a first step which the Minister now must take in order to alleviate the difficulties for farmers and indeed in order to save many farmers in Connemara from total destruction. In addition to immediate measures, which I will outline in a moment, I feel that the Minister must now take this opportunity to address himself to the problems that are now facing Connemara farmers because the various schemes over the years have not been successful in tacking the difficulties in that area.

In addition to immediate measures which I will outline in a moment, the Minister must take this opportunity to address himself to the problems facing Connemara farmers because over the years various schemes have not been successful. Because Connemara is unique, the farm modernisation scheme, the western drainage scheme, the fodder scheme and so on have not been successful in that area, and I want to tell the Minister why. I ask him tonight to tell the House what proposals he has to change those schemes and to address the unique situation in Connemara.

[258] In ten years about 15 farmers in Connemara benefited from the farm modernisation scheme. That is proof that this scheme was a useless exercise. This scheme has been a total failure in this area because the income targets set are too high, the capital base of farmers in the Connemara area is extremely weak and their borrowing capacity is nil. The present farm modernisation scheme should be amended to take account of those factors and so benefit those farmers.

The most important change should be to ensure that part time farmers are included in the scheme since the vast majority of farmers in that area are part time farmers. Many of them must have other types of employment to add to their income from the farm. My first request is that the farm modernisation scheme be tailored to meet the needs of the farmers in Connemara, because the area is unique. The amount of the grant should be increased significantly in peripheral regions. The costs in Connemara are much higher than in any other area. If a farmer wants to build a sheep shed or a cattle shed, his construction costs are higher because he has to bring concrete blocks from Galway which is 60 or 70 miles away. He has to pay higher rates for all work done.

I want to turn now to the western drainage scheme. This too has been a failure in the region. In order to benefit from this scheme farmers had to increase their livestock units by 20 per cent by the end of the planned period. How can any farmer in Connemara be expected to increase his hill sheep numbers by 20 per cent? That is beyond me. This scheme does not and cannot work in Connemara, and I am sure the Minister accepts that. I ask him to accept that this scheme has been a total failure.

For many years farmers in Connemara have been persistently trying to get grant aid for perimeter fencing. Until such time as such a scheme is introduced, the saving of the agricultural industry in Connemara will be very much in doubt. I want you to spell out clearly why you have not been prepared to give perimeter fencing grants to farmers without any conditions. [259]“Without any conditions” is very important because people on the hills cannot be expected to farm properly without such fencing.

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Thomas J. Fitzpatrick  Zoom on Thomas J. Fitzpatrick  I would ask the Deputy to use the third person.

Mr. F. Fahey: Information on Frank Fahey  Zoom on Frank Fahey  I want the Minister to tell me why he will not provide assistance to this area.

I want to deal now with the reclassification of Connemara as a mountainous area. Over the past 12 months efforts have been made to get the Department to enter into discussions at EC level on the reclassification of Connemara as a mountainous region. I put down a question to the Minister some weeks ago about this and was informed it could not be done because it was to benefit dairy farmers only. There are only 13 dairy farmers in Connemara, but there is no doubt that many other benefits would flow from the reclassification of Connemara if the Department were seriously interested in entering into negotiations. I want the Minister to tell us why the Department are not interested in entering into negotiations on this matter, or is it that the reclassification of Connemara would involve higher grants being paid by this Government?

I now come to the most serious problem which has brought all these issues to the fore, that is, food shortages and animal mortality in the region. I am shocked to find that there is a 30 per cent mortality rate among ewes on the mountainside and up to 50 per cent mortality rate among lambs. I spoke to some farmers in Connemara over the weekend and was shocked to hear of the unbelievably small number of sheep which will yield a lamb, stand up and walk away, because the sheep are so weak. That is a terrible state of affairs. What the farmers and the public find very annoying is that this problem was forecast in September 1985 when it was brought to the attention of the Department. A headline in the Connacht Tribune of September 1985 read “Lambs to Starve, Warning from [260] Hill Farmers in Connemara”. Several articles were written by Michael Dillon in The Irish Times in which he spelled out that the difficulties which were apparent in 1985 would become very serious in March 1986.

Why has no remedial action been taken in the seven months since last September when it was very evident to all the experts that there would be a serious problem of the number of store lambs being returned to the hills at that time? It is nothing short of scandalous that no action has been taken to alleviate the position which results in a 50 per cent mortality rate in lambs and a 30 per cent mortality rate in ewes.

The one remedial action which was taken by the Department was the introduction of the feed voucher scheme. That scheme has been a help in Connemara, but it has also caused a very serious shortage mainly because the Department, for their own good reasons, did not choose to operate it in the same way as similar schemes. Five ewes to one livestock unit was the criterion for deciding who was eligible for fodder vouchers instead of seven ewes to each livestock unit as in all previous schemes. Why did the Department change the rules on this occasion?

I heard of a case in Connemara last week where a farmer had three dead cows and 25 dead ewes after spending £5,000 on winter feed last winter. He is not a big farmer. He has 65 livestock units. If the original number of seven ewes to the livestock unit was employed he would come under the free fodder scheme but he was left outside it because of this change. Why did this change occur? Will the Minister consider making free fodder available to all farmers in Connemara because of the present difficulties? As far as I am aware, not too many farmers have been left outside the free fodder scheme, but one could not equate five mountain ewes with, say, 60 of a dairy herd in west or east Galway or the midlands. The earning capacity of 60 dairy cows would be ten times greater than the earning capacity of 300 mountain ewes and I think the Minister will agree with me in that. To [261] compare the owners of those mountain ewes with the owners of dairy herds who could have 60 dairy cattle and still qualify for food vouchers is not fair play.

I call on the Minister to make fodder available to all farmers in the Connemara region because of the very high levels of animal mortality which some farmers have experienced. The number of such farmers is not so very great and a compensation fund should be available to them to get them out of their difficulties which, the Minister will agree, are very serious. The knock-on effect of the mortality rate will be very significant next year as a result of reduced grants due to reduced numbers and inability to replace sufficiently because of those reduced numbers and not having money to buy replacements.

I heard during the week about a man in Connemara who was buying a bale of hay a day because he could not afford to buy hay at £3 a bale in any quantity. In the longer term the fodder crisis shows up the need for a higher level of grant assistance in regard to the farm modernisation scheme. I call on the Minister to provide a decent level of grant for housing sheep, for instance a 75 per cent grant, so that farmers in the Connemara area can provide some form of sheep housing which they cannot provide at present. Only a small number of farmers in Connemara have land capable of producing silage but even those farmers should get once off grants to enable them to commence silage making.

The Department of Agriculture and the Minister of State have made many promises with regard to the introduction of new legislation for commonage division. The Minister of State is aware that 80 per cent of the land of Connemara is in commonage. It is almost impossible for farmers involved in this commonage to develop their lands properly and until such legislation is introduced and the problem of commonage is tackled, I cannot see farmers who at present are doing their best making any significant headway. I ask the Minister of State to indicate tonight why this legislation has not been introduced and why no evident [262] progress has been made on commonage division, and to spell out exactly his proposals for development in this area.

Because of the peripheral nature of the area, the Connemara farmers cannot get any kind of break on matters such as the lime subsidy, the AI subsidy and so on. I appreciate the difficulty about the reintroduction of the lime subsidy but I ask the Minister of State to consider the introduction of a transport subsidy for lime for farmers who live, say, more than 50 miles away from the lime quarries. In Connemara many farmers live more than 50 miles away and with the desperately bad roads the lime distributors are not interested in delivering lime to them except at exorbitant prices for delivery. The situation could be improved with the introduction of a transport subsidy to apply outside a certain distance. This would not cost a great amount of money because very few farmers are in that situation but they are hit hardest at the moment.

I want to ask the Minister of State a few questions about areas where promises have been made and to date no action has taken place in regard to them. Does he envisage that the assessment by An Foras Talúntais of the pilot scheme for aerial spreading of fertiliser under the hill land improvement scheme will be completed in time for the scheme to proceed this year? Will he indicate if his intention is to grant assist the spreading of fertiliser by helicopter in the current year? Because of the large scale demand among farmers for aerial spraying of bracken fern by helicopter, will the Minister of State consider grant aiding such a project as part of the hill land improvement scheme?

I cannot emphasise strongly enough how urgent it is that the Minister should take action in the areas I have talked about. Farmers in Connemara are considerably disappointed that over the past three years, while the Minister has shown a great deal of personal concern and has taken an interest in their plight — and for that they are most grateful — he has not succeeded in making any significant change in the schemes which could assist [263] farmers in Connemara. He has not heeded the warnings last September and the result has been very significant losses to those farmers. He has not made any progress in other areas, such as the reclassification of Connemara as a mountainous area or in the division of commonages in that area. I welcome this opportunity of hearing the Minister's proposals for action in these areas. I should also like to know if the Minister intends to make some form of compensation available to farmers who have been literally wiped out over the last few weeks.

Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture (Mr. Connaughton): Information on Paul Connaughton  Zoom on Paul Connaughton  If I were to respond to all Deputy Fahey's questions it would take much longer than the ten minutes available to me. I am delighted that Deputy Fahey is interested in Connemara farmers, as I have been interested in them for a very long long time. Many of the schemes to which he referred were initiated by me over the last three years and I sincerely hope they will lay the foundation for reasonable progress in future.

The effects of the prolonged bad weather last summer and autumn, and particularly the non-existent growth of grass, means that we are about six weeks behind from the point of view of growth. The exceptional combination of factors means that many farmers have run out of fodder and the remaining fodder is of very poor quality. There are always a fair number of casualties in early spring in relation to sheep and cows, not just in Connemara, and they have to put up with that loss. It is certainly worse this year and livestock losses are higher than they would normally be.

The Deputy is aware of the various measures adopted by the Government last autumn to relieve the situation caused by the bad summer of 1985 which seriously affected the making of hay and silage. These measures—the winter fodder scheme, the Shannon valley flood scheme, the feed voucher scheme and the working capital scheme for tillage farmers—cost the Exchequer about £23 [264] million. In the very near future hay will be transported from the south to Connemara by the Army. I also arranged last week, at very short notice, to make an advance payment in the suckler cow scheme and the reaction has been very good. People who needed it most got hard cash into their hands. I am also currently reviewing the ewe premium, which obviously is the most important one to hill farmers, especially in Connemara. This payment is almost £17 this year, the highest ever, and it applies across the board without any reference to income limits or off farm income. Last Christmas I organised a payment of £4.90 without an inspection because I fully understand the plight of sheep farmers. This was extremely well received because it allowed farmers to buy badly needed feedstuffs for their sheep. The total amount paid out from my Department last week for the cow suckler scheme amounted to £4.5 million and a great deal of that went to County Galway.

Mr. F. Fahey: Information on Frank Fahey  Zoom on Frank Fahey  How much went to Connemara?

Mr. Connaughton: Information on Paul Connaughton  Zoom on Paul Connaughton  I do not have that information because there are about 9,000 herds in County Galway, probably many of them in Connemara.

When I took over this office there was a problem with the timing of inspections for headage payments. Many farmers had to hold on to their stock during October, November and December before they were inspected for these payments. That created a glut on the market at the end of the year. However, I am delighted to say that over the last three years the headage inspection has been brought forward, we were able to carry out most of them last August and we will be in a position to do the same this year. Last August we allowed mart and factory receipts to be taken even before the inspection, which was of great help to farmers because they did not have to hold their cattle. This was greatly appreciated in many areas. To prove that I have a very deep concern for the people of Connemara, we included Connemara ponies [265] under the headage scheme for the first time. I hope also that sheep inspections for the ewe premiums will be ahead of schedule, as they are being carried out at a very brisk pace. We hope to bring the premium payments forward by at least four to six weeks. If we can do that, it will mean that many farmers will get this payment at the end of next month, which will be of considerable help to those who are in a bad way at present.

Deputy Fahey inquired about commonages. A total of 112 have been divided in the last two years, principally those that could not be divided until I invoked dormant legislation which allowed us to divide them. I admit that there are certain commonages in Connemara which would be exceedingly difficult to divide, no matter what legislation is in force, because of problems which have cropped up over the years. However, I am satisfied that we are on the right track in that regard as well as in the area of fertilisation. I introduced a fertilisation scheme in Connemara a few years ago on a pilot basis and I hope it will help sheep farmers everywhere as they will have better herbage during late and early spring. Because of the accessibility of helicopters to areas where a man could hardly walk, I am heartened by the herbage growing in many of the hills which were fertilised over the last two years. As Deputy Fahey mentioned, an in-depth study is taking place at present and will soon be ready. I sincerely hope we will be able to improve the fertilisation programme in future.

[266]Mr. F. Fahey: Information on Frank Fahey  Zoom on Frank Fahey  Will the study be acted on this year?

Mr. Connaughton: Information on Paul Connaughton  Zoom on Paul Connaughton  The report has not been studied in great detail but I see no reason why the programme should not continue. There are problems. Many people are not in agreement with it, but it is very important as far as sheep farmers are concerned and we will hear a lot more about it.

Fencing grants, which were introduced recently, will be very beneficial to farmers in Connemara, much more so than the farm modernisation scheme. I have been closely involved in these grants and I have allowed different types of fences which heretofore were not allowed for grant purposes. This is greatly appreciated by farmers in that area.

Deputy Fahey questioned the livestock unit in so far as the calculation of sheep is concerned. It has always been acknowledged that four or five ewes are equal to one cow unit. It is in accordance with normal policy in so far as livestock units are concerned. I hope I have shown that we have reacted favourably to the situation. I also sincerely hope that the sun will shine in Connemara tomorrow as it is worth millions of pounds to everybody. If we had nine or ten days of good strong sunshine it would do a lot for a very depressed area.

The Dáil adjourned at 11.30 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 8 May 1986.

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