Ulster Unionist Leader Robin Swann MLA has said that almost a year on from the last hill payments being issued, Severely Disadvantaged Area (SDA) farmers in Northern Ireland have been badly let down.
Mr Swann explained that the vast majority of farmers across the Province are primarily grassland based - either beef, dairy or sheep - and for many, their land falls within SDA categorisation.
Mr Swann said: “It has long been acknowledged that farmers in these constrained areas face the challenge of additional costs and income forgone compared to those with land in other parts of Northern Ireland.
“In fact, according to DAERA’s own figures, SDA farms are around £114/ha worse off in income terms than lowland farms.
“I’ve also long believed that the physical landscape of Northern Ireland’s hills would be irrevocably changed if livestock were to disappear from the land. Even environmentalists are on the side of the farmer because they also recognise that scrub and heavy grass, instead of the likes of species rich grassland, are major threats to biodiversity.
“The hill payments were an essential and very welcome source of income. The 2016 scheme for instance attracted 10,000 applications and had a budget of £20m to cover 350,000ha.
“Now, coming up to almost a year after the final payments were received – albeit and even then they were greatly reduced compared to the year before – a number of farmers have lamented to me in recent times the fact that there’s no Executive and that’s why the payments came to an end.
“I don’t know who or where this is coming from but someone appears to be playing politics and spreading misinformation. The truth is there for all to see - it was in 2016 when a consultation on the future of the ANC scheme was carried out: a consultation ordered under the watch of a Sinn Fein DARD Minister and decided upon by a DUP DAERA Minister. It was that same DAERA Minister who then in December 2016 announced that 2018 would be the final ANC scheme and even then it was only to have a budget of £8m compared to the previous £20m.
“The absence of a local Executive or Minister therefore had no bearing whatsoever on the payments coming to an end – it was a 100% local Northern Ireland Executive decision to end the scheme.
“I wanted to see funding for the scheme kept in place, and whilst the UUP were totally opposed to proposals to redistribute a portion of basic payments in Pillar 1 to pay for it, we did believe there was sufficient scope in the overall Executive funds to pay for it.
“I do hope that there will be a new equivalent scheme developed in the future and that hill payments are reinstated. The previous decision here to abolish the payments even stands in stark contrast to what’s happening in the Republic of Ireland where they are greatly increasing budgets for hill support.”