Thursday, 7 September 2017

FARMERS 'LEFT IN LIMBO' thumbnailSurveying the devastation caused to farmland in the Glenelly Valley

Uncertainty reigns over financial aid for flood victims


FARMERS across County Tyrone whose lands were decimated two weeks ago by the devastating flooding have been "left in limbo" with calls for the introduction of a special hardship fund so far going unanswered, it has been claimed.

Across the county, in particular within the Glenelly Valley, farmers had thousands of pounds worth of farmland and livestock washed away when floodwater and huge landslides deposited large volumes of silt, rock and debris.

Fencing, gates, posts, round bales, sheep and cattle were all washed away while some of the most fertile agricultural land in the area was also badly damaged and turned to sludge. Farming families now face months of work to begin to repair the damage with the bill expected to be substantial.

Concerns have also been expressed over financial aid and the effect of lost land on entitlements such as the Single Farm Payment (SFP).

Farmers had appealed for help to clear the land and the rotten carcasses of animals which drowned in the deluge of floodwater. In some instances, carcasses of stock washed away in the torrents have yet to be located.

Some say they are facing an uncertain future with the full financial impact of the clean-up yet to become apparent while others say its difficult to see their farms being restored to how they were.

On Friday, the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) confirmed it is to assist farmers with the disposal of dead animals lost but for many within the farming community it is not enough. It is one of a number of measures DAERA says it has put in place to support farmers affected by the serious flooding.

The department said too that in the wake of the extreme conditions it is adopting a "flexible approach" to late notification of animal losses from affected premises adding that officials have been on the ground in recent days providing support and assistance.

Despite increasing political pressure for a hardship relief scheme however, no announcement or measure has been forthcoming. A Sinn Féin delegation met last week with the permanent secretary of DAERA and senior officials to press the case.

The party's agriculture spokesperson and West Tyrone MLA., Declan McAleer, said the grouping stressed the importance of financial support for those affected.

"Whilst the department is seeking to work flexibly within current schemes, the delegation insisted that this would not be sufficient. Additional financial and technical  support  will be needed to address what has become a disaster for those affected.

"Sinn Féin will continue to press the department, and we will also raise the issue with the interim head of the Civil Service to seek to ensure that the necessary resources are put in place to address the difficulties faced by many within the rural community," he said.

The Ulster Farmers' Union (UFU) has also been in Plumbridge over the last week. President, Barclay Bell, says the union's immediate priority is to ensure that much needed practical help is available in the wake of the flood.

"We are currently working to quantify the impact of the flood but clearly it is a very serious situation for those affected and many of these farm businesses will have a long and difficult road ahead of them. Fields and sheds have been destroyed or seriously damaged from landslides. Livestock and crops have been lost. Crucial access roads and bridges have been washed away. The result is that many of those affected are facing severe uncertainty about the future of their farm businesses.

"The UFU has already started holding clinics along with DAERA, CAFRE and Rivers Agency staff for farmers in these affected areas to provide assistance. We clearly recognise that each individual case will be different, so it can't be a 'one-size fits all' approach when it comes to offering guidance and support," he said.

Mr Bell said the UFU is also investigating all possible options for financial aid for those affected. He added: "We are acutely aware of the financial pressure facing these farm businesses. Much of the damage will not be covered by insurance. Currently, we are reviewing previous financial aid schemes that could possibly also be applied to this situation.

This ranges from the extension of the existing emergency financial assistance scheme for domestic properties to non-domestic businesses, such as farms, which we managed to secure during the extensive flooding in both Fermanagh and around Lough Neagh in 2015. To the more substantive Farming Recovery Fund that was available to farmers in England for the widespread flooding that occurred there a few years ago.

"We also believe that these circumstances justify an increase from the 50 per cent advance already promised by DAERA to 70 per cent in the level of the Basic Payment Scheme due to be released in October. Cash flow will be a critical issue for these businesses and we have already been talking to government officials and politicians at both local and EU levels about these options."

Farmer Bert Wilson, who is also a member of Fermanagh and Omagh District Council, says farmers are still trying to come to terms with the scale of the devastation.

"It is a disaster," the UUP man said. "I've been farming for over 60 years and I've never seen anything like it. A huge part of the problem is that the farmers and even us politicians are in limbo. There is no Assembly, no Direct Rule, there's nowhere to turn and no-one to speak to to get emergency funds."

Mr Wilson said he has arranged for party colleague, Jim Nicholson MEP., to meet with affected farmers across the area tomorrow (Thursday). "He is a farmer himself and I'll be taking him around as many farming communities as possible to see the devastation. There is a possibility of accessing the EU disaster fund but that's far down the line. Farmers need money now, not in six months. Fields have been washed away, acres of land and hill ground has been destroyed and the fencing as well so farmers who have managed to save stock, can't let them out on the fields."

The councillor says he has been fielding calls from distressed farmers and spoke of the shared "frustration" among the farming community at what many perceive to be a lack of action from the authorities.

"Everyone is at their wits end. They don't know where to go. The councils are the only working elected authorities but they are limited in what they can do. It is finances that is needed and it is needed now. Farmers across Donemana, Glenelly, Gortin and Sixemilecross had been severely affected. It is unprecedented and there must be an emergency fund set up - something similar to the emergency funds made available for the flooding in Fermanagh a few years ago. The farming industry has been severely hit in the last number of years. It was on its knees but was building back up. This is now happened and it could take years to recover."


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