Ulster Farmers’ Union hill farming chairman, Ian Buchanan, has warned that uncertainty around the Areas of Natural Constraint (ANC) scheme is creating major difficulties for farmers making management decisions this autumn.
“It has been five months since the end of the DAERA consultation on whether the ANC scheme should continue and we are still waiting for a decision. Uncertainty around whether or not we will have a scheme after 2017 is making it impossible for farmers to make decisions about the future,” said Mr Buchanan.
Examples of this frustration, says Mr Buchanan, include sheep producers trying to plan their breeding season and farmers questioning the value of taking conacre in severely disadvantaged areas.
“Due to the tight margins in livestock production, the decision on support will decide whether or not some severely disadvantaged land is farmed in the future. This underlines how important the ANC scheme is for supporting productive farming in these areas,” he said.
If DAERA opts to end the ANC scheme it would result in the immediate loss of £20 million a year to farmers in severely disadvantaged areas. The continued delays to the introduction of the new agri-environment scheme will also hit farm incomes, with suckler herds particularly badly affected.
“Despite some recent improvements in beef and sheep prices, margins are slim. Direct support and agri-environment payments remain the biggest source of income on these farms. This has been recognised by neighbouring regions. They have encouraged investment, because they understand the contribution these farmers make to the wider economy, the environment and rural communities,” he said.
Mr Buchanan added that if this approach is not adopted here production will decline in severely disadvantaged areas.
DAERA Minister Michelle McIlveen said: “I am still considering options, but given the pressures on both my Department’s and the Executive’s budget, providing any additional support will be challenging. I cannot ignore long-term value for money, nor indeed the redistribution of Pillar I monies which is already occurring as a result of the transition towards flat rate support in Pillar I.”