The first and probably last environmental program I ever joined was GLAS.
Signed enthusiastically in 2017. As someone with a bit of pride in my farming business, a program that offered to pay me almost €25,000 over five years to help the environment seemed like a no-brainer.
We have built and installed bird feeders, bat boxes and bee hotels.
We seeded a field with a special seed mix to feed wild birds.
Weighbridge-stamped barrels of gritty sand were placed in quiet corners of fields for pollinators, and a paddock was set aside for low-effort permanent grazing land.
Our final measure was to cut down and fence in hundreds of meters of hedges – despite the absence of livestock in these fields.
The fencing was an example of silly requirements that flouted common sense, but we did it so well that we ended up hosting a demo for other aspiring GLAS contestants.
But no sooner had the ink dried on the contract than the first of many letters threatening my deportation began to arrive.
The first misstep was ridiculous in hindsight. During the online application process, we thought we would include Low Emission Slurry Spreading (LESS) as one of our promotions. But when we found that we would max out our payment without having to add LESS, we put a zero in the field and thought nothing of it.
After a couple of warning letters asking me to confirm that I really hadn’t spread manure, the bombshell came and informed me that I was being kicked out of the entire program.
With nothing to lose we appealed the decision and a full eight months later the other side came out injured but allowed to remain in the program.
While the episode delayed the first payment by six months for a program I had already invested thousands in, I was just grateful to still be in the club.
But in the same month that the first payment came in, another letter came with the nice headers from the Department of Agriculture, accusing me of over-claiming the area on my permanent grassland.
Some official on the Ministry payroll had decided to exclude the area under the beautiful old chestnut trees in the grassy paddock that had been cultivated for decades.
It was such a symbolic little thing that I can’t even remember if we bothered to appeal.
Of course there was much more to come. I was asked to prove a grazing operation for the same permanent pastures in the following year.
We actually grazed it with our free range turkeys and chickens. But any computer program on Kildare Street obviously couldn’t equate free-range poultry with grazing.
In the end, the only animals acceptable to the department were the two donkeys, who doubled as my watchdogs for the poultry when they were in the pasture.
But because the damn donkeys didn’t have ear tags, we couldn’t prove to the Ministry that they were ours!
This forced us to contact a horse registry to officially register the donkeys in our name, to prove we owned them, to allow us to claim we had a grazing “company” to turn to a bureaucrat allow to allow us to qualify for our GLASS payment.
I asked the section to look at the almost daily videos on our Facebook page of the turkeys and donkeys grazing on our permanent pasture, but no, that wasn’t enough.
I was about to burst, I was so angry.
The guys in the GLAS section must have been amused at this stage because they turned around and issued the same letters demanding proof of our grazing operations the following year 2021.
But as the old saying goes, keep throwing mud at a wall and some of it will eventually stick.
Later in 2021, the department discovered my first actual offense. I had traded one of my fields with a neighbor who let me grow daffodils on his land. In return, he had a crop of new potatoes on mine for a full four months.
This meant that one side of the hedge on a single boundary of the field I had tilled three years earlier was not “under my control” for a period of four months.
We argued that the environmental goals would still be met because the farmer did not touch the hedge. But we were told to send it in for another formal appeal, which we did.
A full 12 months later I haven’t heard from them. I haven’t received anything from them in the past year either.
The officers involved know they have the weight of the state behind them and that they can squash me like a fly with more letters threatening to claw back years of payments, so at this stage the fight is out of me.
The birdhouses start falling from the trees and the piles of sand disappear into the ground. And there is a biodiversity crisis.
But it takes a lot to convince me to ever participate in a ministry environment program again.
Darragh McCullough runs a mixed farming business in Meath, elmgrovefarm.ie
https://www.independent.ie/business/farming/comment/why-im-steering-clear-of-department-environmental-schemes-41927618.html Darragh McCullough: Why I stay away from Departmental environmental programs