Ulster Unionist MLA Rosemary Barton has hit out at DAERA for the level of penalties applied to farmers due to them not having the opportunity to control rushes on their land last year.
Mrs Barton said she is seeking a review of the procedures used by the Departmart of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs.
Mrs Barton said: “The penalty system used by DAERA, which can significantly reduce the farmers Basic Payment Scheme is extremely unfair, particular given the poor weather conditions last year when many farmers couldn’t get the rushes cut or sprayed.
“While I accept it is important that farmers manage their land to reduce weeds and low nutrient plants as far as possible, it is totally unreasonable that farmers are heavily penalised for not getting rushes cut or sprayed on their land last year.
“The weather conditions during the summer and autumn of 2016 and 2017 were horrendous and it was impossible in many instances for farmers to get the work done on fields that would remove the rushes. However where DAERA inspected farms they made no allowance for this at all. Indeed I am aware that on some farms the farmers had the rushes sprayed, but because they were not fully dead DAERA inspectors still penalised them – This is grossly unfair!
“I am asking DAERA to review their procedure in this matter in order to bring a degree of fairness for the farmers.”
In response, a DAERA spokesperson said: “The Department fully appreciates the challenges created by weather conditions over the latter part of the past two summers and practical difficulties this may have caused in some cases in controlling rush. However, the rules of land eligibility and associated penalties for over-declaration are defined in European Commission Regulations. The Department, like every Paying Agency in the European Union, has no ability to deviate from these rules and must ensure that payments are made only on eligible land.
“The department makes extensive efforts to inform farmers of land eligibility requirements and how to avoid penalties. Farmers are advised to take early action if rush infestation is starting to become a problem and avoid the risk of not being able to undertake control measures at a later stage when the level of infestation threatens to make the land ineligible.”