Farmers in crisis west of the Bann

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An Ulster Unionist councillor has characterised the plight facing livestock and arable farmers west of the Bann as critical.

Bert Wilson, from the Sixmilecross area of Co Tyrone, claims that the weather-related problems now confronting farmers in his own area are the worst in living memory.

As a consequence, he is calling upon the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) to commit to a Weather Aid package for affected farmers.

“There is also a requirement for some flexibility to be introduced, regarding the closed period for spreading slurry,” he said.

“This is supposed to kick-in on October 15th. But the reality is that farmers in the west will not be able to meet this deadline, such is the condition of their land.”

He added: “All the farmers in the mid and north Tyrone area have had cattle in for weeks. First cut silage stocks have now been eaten, yet ground conditions are so bad that second cut crops cannot be made.

“Cereal growers are also suffering as they cannot get crops harvested. This is a truly disastrous situation.”

Mr Wilson was one of three Ulster Unionist representatives who recently met with DAERA permanent secretary Noel Lavery on the weather issue.

The deputation was headed-up by the MEP Jim Nicholson.

“We were told that DAERA’s hands were tied, when it comes to agreeing any form of weather aid package. This is a reserved decision, which must be taken by Executive ministers at Stormont. And, of course, as everyone knows we do not have a functioning Assembly and Executive at the present time.

“However, the permanent secretary took on board our views regarding the upcoming ban on slurry spreading.

“First we had the terrible floods at the end of August. But the continuing rain since then has only served to pile more misery on every farming business sin the region,” he said.

UFU president Barclay Bell said that the organisation is aware of the serious situation facing farmers on the ground when it comes to the wet weather hampering farm activities.

“Farmers across Northern Ireland have been affected by the weather. We have been inundated with calls, it is a very stressful situation. Slurry is the major issue at the moment but we are also conscious of rising winter costs.”

According to the Union, farmers do have the option of using the ‘reasonable excuse’ clause for spreading slurry after the 15 October closed period deadline. It covers exceptional circumstances when, through no fault of their own, farmers cannot fully comply with the rules. The UFU secured the inclusion of this clause in the Northern Ireland Nitrates Action Programme in 2005/2006.

Mr Bell continued: “Given the current conditions, where weather and ground conditions are making compliance impossible, farmers may be forced to use this clause. Farmers should keep detailed records such as photos and videos of weather and ground conditions and rain fall data. And be able to prove that they have exhausted all other options. The UFU has created an NIEA approved template that farmers can use to record this information.

“The reasonable excuse clause is as a last resort. No farmer wants to risk their basic payment by spreading slurry during the closed period, but unfortunately for many, the prolonged period of wet weather has left them no other choice,” says the UFU president, adding that those forced to spread slurry during the closed period should take extra precautions.

The Union President confirmed that EU Commission officials are keeping a close eye on Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland when it comes to the current rules.

“They have scrutinised the monitoring of spreading practices and water quality data. “We do not want to give the EU Commission any excuse to impose more legislation. Being able to show we acted responsibly is our best defence.”

A DAERA Spokesperson said: “We remain focused on providing practical on-the-ground support for the farming community impacted by the recent floods. Staff have hosted workshops in the affected areas on land restoration and flood recovery. Further workshops are planned during October to deal with winter feeding of livestock and farm management issues to help mitigate the risk of fodder shortages on farm businesses affected by the flooding or wet weather.

“The Department has proactively sought and received permission from the European Commission to raise the level of advanced CAP payment made in October from 50% to 70% of claim value to assist cash flow. We are committed to making these advanced payments from 16 October to as many farmers as possible who have fully verified claims.

“Following the closure of the Force Majeure process on 14 September 2017, DAERA has been carrying out an analysis of the scope of the damage caused by the flooding and looking at options on how best to further assist the farming community affected. This is so that the Department is in a position to present an incoming Minister with the evidence regarding the need for a scheme and options for what that scheme might look like. However, without a Minister, the ability of the Department to progress these options is limited.

“The closed spreading period for organic manures comes into force at midnight on 15 October 2017 and runs until midnight on the 31 January 2018, and is a mandatory requirement of the Nitrates Directive. There is no legal provision within the Nitrates Action Programme (NAP) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2014 for the Department to grant a waiver. However, under exceptional circumstances, beyond the control of and not foreseeable by an individual farmer, a defence may be made for non-compliance with some of the requirements of the NAP Regulations, including spreading organic manures during the closed period. Such cases would be considered by the NIEA on a case by case basis and must be clearly evidence based showing that the farmer had taken all reasonable steps to manage the situation and was left with no alternative as a result of the adverse weather conditions.”

Meanwhile, a delegation from Farmers for Action (FFA) met with Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) chief executive David Small to discuss the fast-deteriorating weather situation..

FFA’s Sean McAuley said that unprecedented pressure has been placed on Northern Ireland’s livestock sector due to the increasing effects of climate change. He cited the significant damage caused by the recent floods as a case in point, adding

“The weather issue is compounded by a huge swathe of farmers locked in with excessive stock numbers due to the declining TB situation, poor farm gate prices and bank pressure.

“In many cases, long hours of incessant rain have left grass not cut and slurry not spread due to the impossible ground conditions.”

The FFA deputation asked the NIEA to put the strongest possible case to Brussels for a more flexible approach to be taken regarding the implantation of a closed period on slurry spreading over the coming weeks. The lobby group also intends discussing this matter with AFBI, so as to strengthen the case made to Brussels.