Even if it was curiously announced just a few days in advance of Friday last’s elections, sheep farmers in Waterford were pleased to learn of the additional monies coming their way through unused CAP funds.

Agriculture Minister Brendan Smith confirmed that sheep farmers will be the “substantial beneficiaries” from the €25 million in unused CAP funds earmarked for 2010. As any farmer will tell you right now, every little helps.

“Nobody could doubt that the Irish sheep sector is one that is in need of such assistance,” said the Minister last week.

Minister Smith said he was acutely aware of “the particular difficulties being experienced by the sheep sector”, which had prompted him to allocated €7 million from the Single Farm Payment National Reserve to 14,000 hill sheep farmers this year.

He added: “In relation to the unused funds, I am not yet in a position to specify what additional scheme(s) will be introduced to further assist sheep production but, as I have indicated previously, hill and lowland sheep farmers will be the substantial beneficiaries from the allocation of these funds.”

In reaction, IFA President Padraig Walshe said there was sound justification for all of the unused funds to go to sheep sector, which has been is “under severe financial pressure for the last three years”.

IFA Sheep Chairman Henry Burns said the Government’s announcement will boost confidence among sheep producers, adding that all the unused funds must go to sheep farmers in 2010.

ICSA sheep chair Mervyn Sunderland also welcomed the news but called for “immediate clarification” on how exactly the funds will be allocated.

“There is no doubt that the sheep sector has suffered from low prices and it is a fact that the average sheep farmer has a lower single farm payment than those involved in other sectors,” he said.

“Sheep farmers are still unsure as to what shape the additional funding will take and they need this information in order to plan ahead. Unfortunately the sheep sector has been put on the back burner repeatedly and it is in no-one’s interest to allow uncertainty to continue.”

But not every farm body greeted last week’s news with open arms. ICMSA Deputy President John O’Leary said this was “the latest in a line of inexplicable and bizarre decisions made by the Minister with regards to dairy farmers and the wider dairy sector”.

“We are in favour of a vibrant sheep sector,” he wished to clarify. “But there is no comparison between the sheep sector and the dairy sector in terms of national economic and commercial importance.

“The fact that Minister Smith seems to either not appreciate that or, if he did appreciate it, seemed unwilling to follow through on that fact was a very worrying development and one that boded very ill for the Irish dairy sector.”

Mr O’Leary made his feelings plain on the issue. “Every alarm bell within the dairy sector was now ringing; despite this, the Minister seemed quite happy to go on pretending that things would somehow ‘pick up’ if left alone,” he added.

“It was now over two years since ICMSA had first predicted a price collapse in the face of continued quota expansion.

“The Department had ignored the facts [and the] decision by Minister Smith to disregard the income crisis with dairy farming proves conclusively that he and the Department are still sound asleep. Minister Smith promised a great deal and delivered absolutely nothing.”