More than 100 farmers turned out to a meeting in Northumberland which was called after a significant rise in the number of Rural Payments Agency inspection failures in the county.
The RPA, an executive agency sponsored by Defra, can visit farms unannounced to check on paperwork, animal health records, movement records and more.
In Northumberland, the recent failures have lead to Single Farm Payments being reduced by up to 5% - seemingly for relatively small lapses - potentially having a major impact on farm business’ finances, since the profitability of the entire enterprise, rather than just the livestock element, is hit.
Called by NFU county adviser for Northumberland, Samantha Davies, the meeting at Kirkley Hall was chaired by NFU county chairman Hans Pörksen and included contributions from Margaret Casey and Ben Hastings from the RPA, as well as Malcolm Angus and Stephen Brown from Northumberland Trading Standards.
Ms Casey, who started her career with the organisation as an inspector in Northumberland, began by giving an overview of the RPA’s work and the obligations of farmers.
She explained that, every year, farmers must fill in and return an inventory of sheep on their holdings as on December 1, keeping a copy on file themselves.
Movements likewise have to be reported. However, there are exemptions which are still not clear, so if in doubt issues should be reported to the Animal Reporting and Movement Service (ARAMS).
The meeting heard that the electronic reporting system operated by South Western was not functioning properly, with only a single farmer in the audience having been able to make a successful transmission. As a result, they were advised to use paper transfers instead.
The meeting was also told that when selling sheep from this season onward, all must be must identified with an electronic tag, which must be recorded, along with numbers and dates, in the holding register within 36 hours.
It is the farmer’s responsibility to ensure details are 100% correct - a principle recently confirmed by a Defra committee - although a certain level of tolerance would be applied to marts.
Among the most common errors for which fines are imposed are:
generic details on the holding register being incomplete;
replacement tags not being filled in and previous tags not being recorded - farmers must state ‘previous tag not known’ every time this is the case;
failure to state the date of identification; and
in the case of deaths, failing to note the EID number, date and how the carcass was disposed.
Speaking after the meeting, Mr Pörksen added: “The CPRC [Central Point Recording Centre] list of sheep from marts must be complete if used by farmers as the record. If not complete, it is the farmers’ fault and they will be fined, not the mart.
“The advice is that all sheep leaving a farm are EID-read on the farm; any tag not reading should be cut out and replaced with one that does read and all details recorded in the Animal Register.”
Nationally 5% of sheep farmers are inspected every year by the RPA or consultancy firms that work for it.
Mr Pörksen added: “The farmer receives no notice and must allow the inspection to commence immediately, even if he is away for the day or on holiday.
“All movement records, holding records and health records - including vet treatment for sheep dogs - must be up to date, complete and available for inspection.
“All animals are counted and must match up with the records, and 60 will be closely inspected in the sheep pens with special attention given to the EID tags.”
Mr Pörksen thanked the RPA representatives for “very patiently” outlining the situation and responding to numerous questions.
An RPA spokesman said: “The inspection programmes are a crucial part of preventing disease outbreaks and maintaining high standards of traceability and food production.
“We work hard to make farmers aware of the most common cross compliance errors every year to help them to avoid future penalties and save money.
“However, poor record keeping continues to be the major factor in cross compliance breaches nationally. The Guide to Cross Compliance in England 2015 can be found on GOV.UK and highlights areas which can attract high failure rates.”