By Stephen Cadogan
The Department of Agriculture has been “taken on” by 33 of the landowners around the country who have been penalised for claiming payments on fire-damaged hectares.
They are among hundreds of landowners nationally deemed by the Department of Agriculture to have over-claimed payments in the 2017 Basic Payment Scheme (BPS), on land which was burned outside of the permitted time-frame.
Where land was burned between March 1 and August 31, it is not eligible for a BPS payment.
The 33 landowners have shares in up to 1,000 fire-damaged hectares at Killerry Mountain on the Sligo- Leitrim border.
“They have taken advice on this and will push it as far as they can”, said local Fianna Fáil TD Eamon Scanlon.
He said: “These farmers are being victimised. None of them started the fire, and they have sworn affidavits relating to that too.
“There is much access to the mountain for walkers and campers, making it difficult to pinpoint exactly how the fire started.
“It is completely unfair to penalise the farmers in question or to assume they had any part in starting the gorse fires.
The Killerry Mountain commonage land includes 5 km of the Sligo Way waymarked long-distance walking route, by permission of landowners and farmers.
Mr Scanlon said: “Some 60 people a day walk that particular stretch across the Killery Mountain, because it is beautiful countryside.
“I do not think any of those walkers, because they respect the rural areas, would start a fire deliberately, and no farmer would start a fire deliberately outside the burning time. It was probably an accident where a cigarette butt, a bit of glass or whatever else started that fire.
“These farmers are now being heavily penalised for something they did not do. It is affecting them and their families. It is an area with poor quality land, and this penalty affects not only the land on the mountain that they have lost because of fire, but also the lowlands they have.”
Mr Scanlon said payments for 2017 to the Killerry Mountain farmers were withheld until Christmas week. Then, most of them received very little, with some losing between €4,000 and €10,000.
Mr Scanlon said the farmers are being penalised due to a major gorse fire which started on May 3.
Tt was one of an estimated 97 illegal wildfires between March 24 and May 22, in 19 counties (including Cork, Kerry, Limerick, Tipperary, and Waterford in Munster), and farmers in all these areas face the threat of similar payment penalties.