Agreement has been reached between Fine Gael and some of the Independents on a broad policy platform to stimulate the rural economy as part of efforts to gain support for Enda Kenny’s nomination for Taoiseach when the Dáil meets next week. The main plank of this policy is a new scheme to help struggling farmers who have seen their income fall sharply in recent years. The scheme will target some of the most agriculturally disadvantaged areas, and provide payment to farmers who undertake a programme of countryside enhancement measures.
The scheme, to be called the Countryside and Rural Area Programme, will be open to all farmers with annual incomes of less than €50,000 per year or those that live in areas identified as ‘Special Areas of Concern’. Participating farmers will be able to draw down a maximum of €8,000 per year if they carry out different countryside enhancement measures. It is understood that the Scheme will cost €60 million, but economists predict that the downstream benefits will far exceed that initial outlay.
The full range of options are yet to be finalised, but it is likely to be based on the current GLAS model. It will be a three tiered system. To receive the basic payment of €5,000 per annum, participating farmers can choose from three measures; the cutting and grubbing out of hedgerows and other bits of scrub that are cluttering up the countryside; dredging drains, streams and other wetlands to improve drainage; and the burning of hillside vegetation to clean the land. In the more disadvantaged or ‘Priority Areas’ of Kerry and Roscommon, farmers will have the option of getting an additional top up payment of €2,000 if they agree to drain and get rid of any remaining raised bogs, clear their land of any wild flowers and other wildlife, and put up electric barbed wire fences to keep any birdwatchers, families with young children or city slickers from entering their land. There will be an additional €1,000 per year available for ‘gold standard’ CRAP participants who agree to put out crow bangers to scare off seagulls and operate live traps to capture pine martens and put them back into Nature Reserves. The introduction of a corncrake scaring measure in key corncrake areas is also being considered.
The CRAP will be part of a new Department of Rural Affairs, established to drive real change in rural Ireland. The Rural Development and Forestry sections of Agriculture will transfer to this new Department of Rural Affairs, as will the LEADER and Roads sections of the Department of Environment and the drainage section of OPW. It will also be given a statutory role for rural planning, merging some of the existing responsibilities of NPWS, EPA and An Bord Plenala, to deliver a more common sense approach to planning for rural Ireland. With the exception of the Greens who feel there is a better way of doing things, it is expected that this policy platform will have broad political support.