Dáil Éireann - Volume 412 - 13 November, 1991
Adjournment Debate. - Environmentally Sensitive Area Designation.
Mr. Flanagan Mr. Flanagan
Mr. Flanagan: I wish to remind the Minister for Agriculture and Food, and indeed I hope his Minister of State would remind the present incumbent of a decision taken in February 1991 which designated part of the Slieve Bloom area in County Laois as an environmentally sensitive area. This scheme seeks to protect and enhance the countryside by encouraging farmers and landowners——
Mr. M. Brennan Mr. M. Brennan
Mr. M. Brennan: On a point of order, a Cheann Comhairle, I think that Deputy  Flanagan should withdraw what he said to his colleague.
An Ceann Comhairle Seán Treacy
An Ceann Comhairle: Deputy, desist forthwith or leave the House.
Mr. Flanagan Mr. Flanagan
Mr. Flanagan: I am not sure of the comment being made by Deputy Brennan, but I am delighted to see him in the House for a change.
The scheme as promised by the Minister seeks to protect and enhance the countryside by encouraging farmers and landowners to follow conservation friendly farming practices. This scheme is entirely voluntary and the response of the people in the Slieve Bloom area has been most positive. This countryside is of high environmental quality, with considerable landscape and nature conservation interest. From an agricultural point of view, much of the land provides a very low economic return and farmers were looking forward to the plan being implemented and the necessary cash returns being forthcoming.
A period of almost nine months has elapsed since the Minister made the specific and unambiguous commitment but nothing seems to have happened since. The scheme is an important part of the entire rural development process and with 70 per cent of the funding available through the European Community I cannot understand the inactivity of the Minister in this regard. I am sure that the Minister of State opposite is fully aware of the present farm income crisis that has drastically reduced the incomes of farmers in County Laois, which is primarily an agricultural county. I ask whatever Minister for Agriculture and Food, if any, the country might have tomorrow that he or she would locate this file in the Department forthwith and make the necessary arrangements through the European Community to implement this programme.
The Minister will be aware of the enormous success of this programme in certain areas of the Scottish Highlands and the western isles. There has been a tremendous response on the part of farmers across the Border in Northern Ireland  to the scheme introduced four years ago and which to date has received an investment of over £5 million. The Minister will be aware that in 1975 the Slieve Bloom area was designated as an environmental park. Appropriate conservation programmes in the area must stem directly from the low profitabiity of existing farmlands there. As a result of the lower economic return there has been an increased tendency for hill sheep farms to be sold off for afforestation. More generally there is a lack of expenditure and investment on traditional farming operations which over time would help to protect and enhance the environment. The growth of forestry plantations at the expense of hill sheep farming is not necessarily a threat to the environment of the area, but the prospect of continuous afforestation, where the whole of a hillside for many miles is planted with a limited range of coniferous trees, must have serious detrimental effects on the natural beauty of the area and may damage the habitat on which wild birds, animals and other natural flora and fauna depend. The farmers in the Slieve Bloom area rightly deserve this designation. I urge the Minister to act in this matter forthwith.
Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture and Food (Mr. J. Walsh) Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture and Food (Mr. J. Walsh)
Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture and Food (Mr. J. Walsh): I should like to thank Deputy Flanagan for having introduced this topic. Council Regulation (EEC) No. 797/85 permits member states to introduce schemes under which annual premiums may be paid to farmers who undertake to introduce or maintain, for at least five years, farming practices compatible with the requirements of the protection of the environment and of natural resources or with the requirements of the maintenance of the landscape and the countryside. The EC contributes 65 per cent to the cost.
As part of the Government's environmental action programme a decision was taken to introduce an environmentally sensitive areas scheme in Ireland. Accordingly, an interdepartmental committee was set up to recommend areas  suitable for designation as environmentally sensitive. Following the report of the committee the Minister announced in February 1991 that two areas had been selected on a pilot basis, one in the Slieve Blooms, Counties Laois/Offaly and the other at Slyne Head, County Galway. The Slieve Bloom environmentally sensitive area comprises the entire district electoral divisions of Kyle and Nealestown in County Laois and Roscomroe in County Offaly.
The Minister also indicated at that stage that a suitable scheme would be sent to the EC Commission for approval. There was no undue delay in drawing up the draft scheme in the Department and in forwarding it to the Commission. Negotiations with the Commission on measures of this kind usually take some months. In addition to negotiating with the Commission the proposal has also to be submitted to the Committee on Agricultural Structures and Rural Development which is representative of both the Commission and the 12 member states, for their opinion. Then the Commission take a formal decision. There is no question of implementing a measure in advance of formal approval by the Commission.
The present position is that formal consultation within the framework of the EC Committee referred to took place on 24 October. Final approval of the scheme is expected very shortly when we should be in a position to invite applications from individual farmers in the pilot areas concerned.
Dáil Éireann 412 Adjournment Debate. Environmentally Sensitive Area Designation.