The Ulster Farmers’ Union is furious following the announcement by DAERA that applications to the Environmental Farming Scheme (EFS), will endure a review on the mouth of Christmas.
Farmers who submitted applications in September for the wider scheme and May for the higher scheme, were expecting agreements to be issued any day now.
UFU president Ivor Ferguson said: “This announcement has come completely out of the blue.
“It is appalling that DAERA have called for a review at this late stage and the UFU wants an explanation as to why it is needed. DAERA mentioned a consultation with stakeholders but this has not happened.
“It is pathetic that there seems to have been a last-minute panic by DAERA just as agreements were about to be issued to farmers.
“Any delay to issuing agreements will put severe pressure on our farmers.
“It gives them less time to complete environmental works in line with the 2020 deadlines, meaning it is more likely that farmers will not be able to complete the work they wanted to do.”
Farmers have already endured a bad experience regarding the EFS following the rejection of more than 700 applications for the EFS Higher Tranche 3, due to a lack of resources to progress their applications.
“DAERA is getting a reputation for their incapability to deliver when it comes to EFS. Farmers have been left with a bad taste in their mouth due to the rejection of a significant number of higher applications in the past and to now delay around 200 people who have engaged with the higher scheme and will have to pay environmental planners, plus over 2000 wider applicants is outrageous. DAERA wants farmers to be on board with the scheme which they applied to in good faith wanting to deliver environmental works, but now they have been left in the lurch.”
While there are issues with the EFS, there are many positives with benefits to both the farmer and the environment. However, DAERA’s sudden delay is hindering the growth of the scheme, the UFU has said.
“It was encouraging to see so many farmers take an interest in the EFS and the high number of applicants shows that farmers are keen to improve and create habitats on their farms.
“The momentum was growing and for DAERA to pull back at this late stage will make many farmers reconsider if they should enter a future scheme which is not what anyone wants.
“The deadlines for spending the funding committed under the NI Rural Development Programme for agri-environment measures, are fast approaching. With this type of last-minute dithering by the Department, DAERA could end up with a significant underspend, a failure to meet environmental targets and a very red face.
“DAERA need to take a long hard look at their priorities and if they are serious about environmental improvement, then they need to let farmers get on with it and give them the confidence and support to do so.
“Let’s hope they proceed quickly with whatever review they feel they need to do and let farmers get back to delivering environmental goods that DAERA are continually asking for.”
Meanwhile DAERA says it has updated stakeholders on the next phase of the Environmental Farming Scheme (EFS).
DAERA has informed applicants that there has been a significant increase in applications for certain options within the scheme, while uptake of some other options has been lower than envisaged. Therefore, a further assessment of Tranche 3 applications is being undertaken to ensure the EFS continues to deliver on the environmental outcomes envisaged in 2017.
A DAERA spokesman said: “The natural world is facing many challenges, from climate change to increasing pressures on water quality and biodiversity, and it is important that we work to address them at a local level. The Environmental Farming Scheme is one way farmers can play their part.
“The scheme has so far, proven popular with the agricultural community with demand being extremely high. The Department is greatly encouraged by the enthusiasm farmers have shown towards protecting and enhancing our environment. Tranche 3 is no different, with a total of over 2,900 applications received.”
The spokesman continued: “It is appropriate that we undertake some further assessment to ensure that the mix of options being applied for will continue to deliver the environmental benefits the scheme was designed to deliver and represent value for money.”
The Department aims to complete this work by early 2020. Whilst this work is ongoing DAERA will not issue further EFS agreements.
The Department appreciates that this delay may be disappointing news to farmers who have an application pending and will provide further updates early in 2020.