James Stephen, partner in charge of Carter Jonas’ South West rural team, sets out the challenges ahead for the Rural Payments Agency as the new Basic Payment Scheme nears.
Harvest is drawing to a close and cultivations are well under way in readiness for sowing next year’s crops but farmers still face considerable uncertainty about what they will need to do to comply with the new Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) rules to meet criteria for payment from the RPA.
As most readers will be aware the Single Payment Scheme, which is the existing EU support scheme for farmers, will be replaced by the BPS from January 1.
Farmers will need to comply with a whole raft of new rules, many of which seem entirely pointless. However, compliance with these new rules will be necessary if farmers are not to lose out on support payments in 2015.
It seems likely that with many agricultural commodity prices at low levels, these EU support payments will be even more important next year in order to balance the books. However it is frustrating that following the publication of the latest update from DEFRA on the new rules, there are still many questions left unanswered.
In particular some of the rules are not clear surrounding the Ecological Focus Areas (EFAs) that form part of the “greening” measures which will affect many arable farmers. Under these rules, farmers with more than 15 hectares of “arable land”, subject to some exemptions, will have to put five per cent of it into an EFA.
The simplest way to do this is to “set aside” five per cent of the arable land as fallow. But care is required to understand the definition of arable land and what will qualify as fallow.
I do not have space here to deal with these complexities but suffice it to say you can end up with unexpected results, which for example will allow temporary pasture to qualify as fallow provided it is not cropped or grazed between January 1 and June 30. This will achieve absolutely nothing of benefit for farmers or the environment.
Another option is using hedges as a means of claiming the five per cent EFA. However, the rules in relation to hedges are even more confusing. At present it seems clear that if a hedge is bordered directly by arable land in the ownership of one farmer, then the hedge can be claimed.
However, if the hedge borders permanent pasture, a road or a neighbour’s land on the other side, it is not clear whether this hedge can be used to contribute to the EFA and if so to what extent.
Further guidance is awaited on this and many other points of detail from DEFRA and so my advice to farmers is to keep things as simple as possible in the first year of the new scheme and plan next year’s cropping on the “knowns” rather than waiting for DEFRA to define the “unknowns”.