20 September 1996

Irelands increasing support crucial to agricultural policy

CASH support for Irelands less favoured areas has increased in recent years, according to the Irish Farmers Association.

Gerry Gunning, secretary of the IFAs rural development committee, said EU funding for the disadvantaged areas had improved considerably since they were first introduced in the mid-1970s.

The biggest improvement had been made from 1989 onwards when the EU doubled its structural funds budget. Further improvements in the budget have also been made since then reducing the reliance on government contributions.

Mr Gunning added that the IFA viewed the disadvantaged areas scheme as a crucial element of agricultural policy. And after a fifth review of the scheme, in May this year, 75% of the country is classed as a disadvantaged area.

The boundary changes have meant about 120,000 Irish livestock farmers now qualify for LFA payments and about 8.6% of family farm income is derived from payments under the LFA or headage schemes.

Like the UK, the disadvantaged areas are classed as severely handicapped or less severely handicapped with payment or headage rates varying in each region.

Variable headage rates

In the severely handicapped areas producers receive £84 a beef cow, up to a maximum of £3360 on 40 beef cows. Other cattle livestock units, including dairy cows, also qualify for a reduced rate of up to £40 a head. In less severely handicapped areas, headage rates are £75 a beef cow up to a maximum of £2250. And for sheep the rates in all disadvantaged areas are £10 a ewe up to a limit of 200 head.

A new tier, the so-called third tier, is also planned to be introduced next year for western Ireland which could bring another 1.4m ha (3.5m acres) into the scheme.

Payment rates for the new tier have not yet been agreed and negotiations are still taking place with the Department of Agriculture. Mr Gunning said the IFA is looking for payments of £100 a suckler cow and £15 a ewe in these areas, although it recognised that these rates might not be attainable.

The LFA schemes fall within the operational programme for agriculture and rural development in Ireland, which has a budget of £653m for 1994-1999. In the first year (1994/95) spending under the programme was £232m and this year £11m has been paid out.

Mr Gunning said that he believed the headage payments had been "a fair factor" in stabilising incomes in the LFA areas. They were one of the most relevant measures available to assist livestock producers on poor land.

And without them rural depopulation, and rural deprivation, within these fragile, marginal areas would increase.

*NB payments in £IR.

Liz Mason