Environmental Farming Scheme now open

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Next week, Tranche 3 of the Environmental Farming Scheme (EFS) will open for applications for Northern Ireland farmers.

The EFS is funded through the NI Rural Development Programme 2014-2020.

A budget of around £100 million was allocated to this part of the programme with the majority of this funding coming from the EU. Post Brexit, the UK Treasury has given a guarantee that all agreements signed before the end of 2020 will be fully funded and therefore it is expected that the scheme will open again in 2020 for a final call for applications from interested farmers.

While many farmers have been involved in agri-environment schemes in the past such as the CMS and the NICMS, this scheme has some key differences. Successful applicants to the EFS will be offered a five year agreement and unlike previous schemes this is not a ‘whole-farm’ scheme therefore, farmers can select just some parts of the farm under the wider scheme (those applying to the higher scheme must submit all land classified as ‘higher’). Farmers will not have the same level of contact with a DAERA countryside management branch adviser as in previous schemes, but the wider scheme is simpler and therefore less help should be necessary.

The UFU encourage all farmers to take a look at the scheme and to consider applying.

The Environmental Farming Scheme has three levels;

• Wider – for land outside designated areas (opening for applications on Monday 19th August)

• Higher – primarily for designated sites (tranche 3 opened earlier this year)

• Group – to support farmers working together in specific area (this will open separately)

It is the wider scheme that is opening for applications. Within the wider EFS there are around 20 general options available for farmers to choose from in addition to some ‘non-productive investments’ which are basically capital items to help deliver some of the options. There are also stand-alone options such as organic, woodland and native breeds that can be applied for. The maximum amount that any farmer can receive under the scheme is capped depending on farm size. The UFU have highlighted to DAERA that this cap is restrictive, and farmers have had to reduce the amount of environmental work they wished to do due to this cap being imposed. It is frustrating that farmers who are willing to do additional environmental works are being prevented from doing so and the UFU have been lobbying DAERA to revise this aspect of the scheme.

The UFU have also highlighted frustrations around the higher scheme. Despite there being a desire by DAERA to have more designated sites managed under agri-environment schemes, large numbers of farmers were not issued letters of offer by DAERA. There were 932 applicants to the higher scheme but only 300 letters of offer issued earlier this year. DAERA are quick to point out the environmental concerns relating to agriculture but when farmers step up to address the challenge, they are turned away.

Farmers are advised to not over-commit in terms of the amount of fencing and other options applied for as there is a reasonably short window (usually before 1st June), to get the work done and all must be carried out in year one of the agreement. As with all schemes, penalties can be applied if works are not carried out or are not carried out to the appropriate standard. Therefore, when applying, farmers should think carefully as to what options work for them and what they will be able to manage and complete within the timelines specified by DAERA.

To be eligible for the scheme farmers must have three ha of eligible land, have management control (claiming BPS) of the land and be prepared to meet the various requirements such as meeting cross-compliance and greening, complete training and keep records.

All applications for the EFS must be done online. The UFU previously highlighted concerns around this policy and DAERA have taken steps to assist those who may have problems with working online.

The EFS Wider sounds complex however the online application is relatively straightforward and will show which options are available in each field on a farm. The application window closes on the 20th September 2019 so the UFU would encourage farmers, if interested, to start considering their options now and don’t leave this to the last minute.

Agri-environment schemes have delivered for both the farmer and the environment in the past and the UFU would encourage farmers to go online and see what options are available to their farm business.