FARMERS cannot convert more than five hectares of uncultivated land or semi-natural area to intensive agriculture without having an environmental impact assessment (EIA) screening carried out by Department of Agriculture officials, under regulations designed to avert multi-million euro fines.
The EIA screening will also be needed for those removing more than 500 metres of field boundary, re-contouring more than two hectares (one hectare = 2.471 acres), or draining more than 15 hectares (36.9 acres).
Environment and Agriculture Ministers Phil Hogan and Simon Coveney yesterday said consultation and engage-ment will take place with relevant stakeholders and the European Commission on the guidelines that will support these regulations.
IFA president John Bryan called for further changes and clear interpretation of the regulations.
He said: "While progress has been made on the threshold levels, significant concerns remain regarding the definition of wetlands and the levels for re-contouring of land. The implementation of the legislation must minimise the hassle and bureauc-racy imposed on farmers."
IFA’s environment and rural affairs chairman, Pat Farrell, called for a working group to ensure the legislation has least impact on farmers, and takes full consideration of existing measures in environmental schemes and general farm cross-compliance rules.
Meanwhile, Mr Coveney said, "My focus through-out the summer has been to avoid the probability of very significant fines in this case, while introducing a system that does not overburden farmers and is easily accessible and understandable.
"I am satisfied that we have brokered a compromise which recognises those needs and delivers a workable solution for farmers.
"While the court may ultimately impose a fine for the legacy of inaction, the shared understanding that we have secured here with the Commission should spare us from the imposition of daily fines of €33,000 per day or up to €12.5 million per annum."
The strictest controls in the new measures apply to environmentally sensitive wetlands. Planning permission and screening for EIA is required for farm development in these areas of more than 10% of a hectare.
Mandatory thresholds for full EIA are also introduced, starting at two hectares for farm development of wetlands, in line with Britain. In addition, planning permission accompanied by an environmental impact statement may be required even in respect of wetland drainage below the 0.1 hectare threshold in cases where the drainage would have a significant effect on the environment.