Many farmers have welcomed the announcement that hedges can contribute towards Environmental Focus Areas under new EU greening regulations.
However, there are concerns that such arrangements could cause the Rural Payment Agency serious problems when processing Basic Payment Scheme claims in the New Year.
As of January 2015, the farming Single Payment System is to be replaced with the Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) and all farmers applying for this subsidy will have to carry out an online application through the Rural Payment Agency (RPA).
There are already underlying concerns from farmers that this change of systems – which is set to cost around £150m – could lead to delays in processing subsidy payments.
Such concerns are well founded when considering the disastrous consequences that came about due to the last reform of the Common Agricultural Policy when, in 2005, the Defra coordinated change to the Single Payment System led to governmental costs of £600m and thousands of farmers experiencing delayed subsidy payments.
As such, there is a great deal of pressure on the RPA to ensure that the change of payment systems runs as smoothly as possible.
Making this transition process even more challenging for the RPA though was the long-awaited news, announced recently, that hedges will be allowed to count towards new environmental requirements that all farmers will have to comply with in order to receive BPS subsidies.
Under new greening regulations decreed by the recent reform to the Common Agricultural Policy, any land holder with more than 15 hectares of arable land wishing to claim subsidies through the BPS will be liable to designate 5% of their arable holding as an Environmental Focus Area (EFA), with 30% of their subsidy payment dependent on meeting EFA and other greening criteria.
Farmers will be able to allocate land lying fallow, buffer strips, catch and cover crops, nitrogen-fixing crops and hedges towards their total acreage of designated EFA.
With every metre of designated hedging counted as 10sqm towards final EFA targets, the use of hedges as a component part of EFAs is an attractive option for arable land holders who wish to limit their loss of productive land while still meeting greening requirements.
While this may be good news for farmers, it does poses serious complications for the RPA and there have already been warnings that choosing such options could come at a significant cost. Defra Secretary Owen Paterson, in a speech to arable farmers, said that by including hedges as part of designated EFAs, land holders will make administering subsidy payments much more difficult.
“If you want to include hedges in your EFA, we’ll need to work with you to get the mapping of hedges right, you will need to accept that the verification process could take longer and there is a risk you may get your BPS payment later.”
The main delay will be caused by the requirement for farmers to accurately map all hedges on their holdings and convey this complex data accurately to the RPA.
Currently, existing mapping data from agri-environment schemes held by the RPA cannot be used and all hedges recorded by farmers will need to be digitally recorded (or re-recorded) and then verified, thus adhering to strict legislation set down by the European Commission.
This will be a time-consuming and frustrating process for farmers and the RPA alike and NFU president Meurig Raymond has identified that this process could cause the agency significant problems.
As such, he has urged that action is taken as soon as possible to initiate the process of mapping hedges.
“We understand the RPA is now commissioning work to digitise hedgerows to the required European Commission standard. I am urging ministers that the RPA completes this mapping work as swiftly as possible.”
With many farmers reliant upon the financial aid of the BPS and very likely to count hedges toward their Greening requirements, it is to be hoped that the RPA is able to deal with the challenge that mapping these hedges poses and that the transition from the Single Farm Payment to the Basic Payment Scheme runs smoothly in 2015.