22 May 1998

Penalties loom for Welsh over-grazers

By Robert Davies

WELSH Office officials are investigating 17 cases of alleged over-grazing, most involving common land, and are preparing to impose penalties.

The figure emerged at an upland commons conference at Llandovery, Carmarthenshire, which highlighted the problems of defining excessive and damaging grazing, and the lack of workable legislation to control the actions of individual graziers.

But Huw Brodie, head of livestock subsidies at the Welsh Office, said that where the uneasy compromise between the competing pressures of farming and environmental protection broke down, the government had the sanction of withdrawing support payments.

"While most EU countries have argued against it, the UK accepts that a measure of cross compliance is necessary," said Mr Brodie.

Dealing with allegations was dem-anding in staff time and resources, but the Welsh Office would enforce the law as it stood. His message to farmers was to adapt to environmental pressures, which were not going to disappear.

Clive Whitworth of the Farming and Rural Conservation Agency, which investigates over grazing claims, said the aim was to stop the growth, quality and diversity of vegetation being adversely affected by grazing, and to halt damage linked to supplementary feeding.

A full investigation was costly, so a land manager and ecologist did an initial assessment to see if one was justified. Where there was a problem, investigators could offer a range of solutions such as changing the timing of grazing, shepherding to cut localised grazing pressure, or reducing stock numbers.

A sustainable stocking rate based on vegetation type was calculated. Every effort was made to work closely with farmers, but, he admitted, it could be difficult to get agreement when a group of common land graziers was involved.

"Over-grazing is an emotive issue," said Mr Whitworth. "Farmers must be allowed time to adapt and subsidy cuts used only as a last resort."

He suggested the proposed new all Wales agri-environment scheme could offer enhanced payment rates to common land graziers who agreed to stocking rate prescriptions, but conference delegates were warned of a possible threat to EU environmental subsidies.

John Taylor of the Countryside Council for Wales said negotiators at the World Trade Organisation talks would have to convince some countries that direct grants were not just back-door subsidies.

Huw Brodie, head of livestock subsidies at the Welsh Office, said farmers must adapt to environmental pressures.

Hill and upland farmers must take full advantage of environmental and stewardship schemes, which could provide a lifeline for their businesses.