Abrupt reallocation of funds by the Department of Agriculture has hit farmers and Ireland’s most treasured wildlife, including the hen harrier, says An Taisce

An Taisce The National Trust for Ireland has written to DG Agriculture and DG Environment of the European Commission querying the legality of a massive reallocation of funds by the Department of Agriculture under Ireland’s Rural Development Programme 2007-2013. The Commission has confirmed that it is now investigating the matter.

The reallocated money was originally earmarked for spending on Ireland’s most important and most threatened wildlife areas - Natura 2000 sites.

The original budget for distribution to farmers managing land within these protected areas was €528 million. However, in 2013 the Department of Agriculture abruptly announced that only €93 million would be spent on Natura 2000 sites and that the massive balance of more than €400 million would be reallocated elsewhere. This represents a reallocation of greater than 80%.

Internal correspondence obtained by An Taisce under access to information rules reveals that the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) was taken aback by the Department of Agriculture’s announcement. The NPWS sought a detailed explanation from its government colleagues but this was not forthcoming until An Taisce made a formal access to information request.

The NPWS and conservationists have long argued that CAP funds earmarked for agri-environment schemes should be better targeted and the outcomes of schemes measured. This is on the basis that it is much better to pay meaningful sums to a smaller number of farmers to manage land within Natura 2000 sites in a way that is beneficial for both farmers and nature conservation areas.

However, the Department of Agriculture and the IFA appear to prefer CAP agri-environment money to be spread as widely (and hence thinly) as possible, even if this means no real targeting and poor environmental outcomes.

The result is that funding is widely distributed via agri-environment schemes - which is good news for certain politicians and industry lobby groups but bad news for many communities and the environment.

Diluting funds in this way has failed to stop Ireland's spiralling biodiversity crisis, and it is disastrous for communities living in Natura 2000 sites, as many of them are farming on marginal land.

Agri-environment payments are integral to the viability of farming in many areas. Without them many communities and the rich cultural and natural heritage they support will be lost forever.

Such considerations appear lost on the Department of Agriculture and the IFA, which seem to favour widely distributed ‘few-strings-attached’ schemes whose outcomes are not effectively monitored or measured.

As the NPWS commented in an internal submission to the Department of Agriculture in 2013, past agri-environment schemes have suffered “due to poor design of prescriptions, inadequate targeting and baseline setting and little or no monitoring of results.”

The NPWS concludes in its submission that past schemes have failed to deliver sufficient protection for Ireland’s biodiversity and have not ensured that ecosystems can support a vibrant agricultural sector in the long term.

It is therefore no surprise that a conservation assessment published in 2013 revealed that of the 420+ Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) in Ireland, only 9% are in favourable condition, with 41% being considered ‘unfavourable bad’ and 50% ‘unfavourable inadequate’.

One of Ireland’s most iconic birds of prey - the hen harrier - has been particularly in the spotlight recently as a result of the Department of Agriculture’s decision to shift funding away from Natura 2000 sites. The most recent national survey of the species recorded in 2010 a mere 128 to 172 breeding pairs, and revealed that the breeding population had crashed by 18% between 2005 and 2010.

With further reductions predicted the hen harrier will become extinct in Ireland unless major action is taken in the near future.

More than 4,400 farmers have had land designated in order to help conserve the endangered hen harrier. These farmers are entitled to financial support so that they can continue the traditional farming practices which support not only the hen harrier but also the rich natural and cultural heritage of our uplands. However, as a result of the Department of Agriculture's reallocation of funds, this support has not been forthcoming. A mere 377 farmers (9%) successfully accessed the relevant scheme before the Natura 2000 funds were reallocated.

Fintan Kelly of An Taisce’s Natural Environment Office comments,

“Thousands of farmers have been sold out and the hen harrier is being used as a scapegoat. The Department of Agriculture is to blame and the IFA has been conspicuously quiet about this controversial reallocation of funds. The Department of Agriculture needs to recognise that nature conservation is part of its remit too. At the moment they seem to regard it as 'another Department's problem'.

An Taisce will be fighting to ensure that the affected farmers receive the financial support they deserve in the upcoming Hen Harrier Threat Response Plan stakeholder consultation. We are open to working with any groups or individuals who wish to fight to preserve the rich heritage of our uplands.

The Department of Agriculture is able to dictate how land is used in Ireland by its design of schemes and its distribution of funds. In the case of the hen harrier, farmers claim that their designated land is worth only €1,000 per acre while adjoining undesignated land is worth at least €4,000 per acre for forestry. This creates a major financial incentive to afforest land (at the expense of the hen harrier), and sows discontent amongst those with designated land. This must change, for the benefit of communities and the hen harrier."

Unfortunately there is a sad history of hen harrier persecution in recent years. In 2003, during a controversy over the proposed designation of protected areas for the species, a hen harrier was shot and its corpse sent anonymously to the Kerryman newspaper.

Just last month a satellite-tagged hen harrier, which was being followed by thousands online, was found dead in the Waterville area of Co. Kerry. It was recently confirmed that she had been shot dead with a shotgun.

There is no indication that a farmer was involved. Last week Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney commented on Twitter: "I will do what I can in RDP [Rural Development Programme] to financially assist farmers with land designated for Hen Harrier, nobody should take the law into their own hands."

Coveney added that the killing "needs to be strongly condemned" and confirmed that the NPWS and Gardaí are investigating. However, such incidents rarely result in prosecutions.

Doireann Ní Cheallaigh of An Taisce's Natural Environment Office comments,

"The proposed reallocation of more than €400 million by the Department of Agriculture was a plan that should have been assessed under the EU’s Habitats Directive, but wasn’t. More generally, it must have been clear to the Department of Agriculture that this reallocation of funds would have a significant impact on the environment, yet the public was not consulted before the decision was taken, in breach of the Aarhus Convention.

These are some of the issues we have raised with the European Commission. If necessary, the next step will be a formal complaint to the European Court of Auditors."


For further information, please call:
Charles Stanley-Smith, Communications, An Taisce Tel: +353 87 2411995
email: [email protected]
An Taisce The National Trust for Ireland


  1. The NPWS’s 2013 internal submission to the Department of Agriculture can be found here: https://drive.google.com/file/d/0Byc1SOzeg2lPVldGa2xXdE5hQ0E/view?usp=sharing
  2. A summary of the 2013 conservation assessment can be found here: https://circabc.europa.eu/sd/a/9c4e7e6c-fa60-4655-a8a2-57f3747d0e83/IE_20140528.pdf
  3. See, for example, the following links regarding the hen harrier: http://www.independent.ie/business/farming/hen-harrier-regulations-have-left-land-almost-worthless-claim-farmers-30733511.html and http://www.oireachtas.ie/parliament/media/committees/agriculturefoodandthemarine/Opening-Statement-IFDL-161214.pdf
  4. A report of the recent shooting of a hen harrier in Co. Kerry is here: http://www.irishtimes.com/news/environment/investigation-after-protected-hen-harrier-shot-dead-in-kerry-1.2087061
  5. The blog which was tracking the hen harrier's movements is here: http://henharrierireland.blogspot.ie/p/latest.html
  6. The 2003 story regarding the hen harrier corpse being sent to the Kerryman newspaper is here: http://www.independent.ie/regionals/kerryman/news/hen-harrier-was-shot-by-rifle-27369584.html
  7. More information about the hen harrier can be found here: http://www.birdwatchireland.ie/Publications/eWings/eWingsIssue64January2015/GettingtoknowtheHenHarrier/tabid/1433/Default.aspx