Excluding farmers with under 10ha from a future area-based payment could have adverse effects on the NI environment, DAERA has been warned.

As part of the public consultation on future agricultural policy, Belfast-based consultants from RPS Group were commissioned by the Department to assess the likely impact of the proposals on protected sites, and the wider environment in NI.

In general, the consultants conclude that the proposals will benefit the environment, with the ‘Farming for Nature’ package of measures likely to have “positive, long-term effects”.

DAERA justifies excluding farms under 10ha

However, in the short term, until those agri-environment measures are developed, the bulk of the money will initially be paid out in an area-based scheme, known as a resilience measure. It will be targeted at active farmers (excluding those growing grass for sale) and comes with a minimum claim size of 10ha.

In its consultation document, DAERA justifies excluding farms under 10ha on the basis that those “farming small areas of land typically have very low levels of agricultural activity”. Responding to that, the RPS consultants warn of “adverse effects” on the environment as these farms will not be subject to a new set of farm sustainability standards (replacing cross compliance) that will accompany the resilience payment.

However, the consultants are positive towards the DAERA proposal to allow all land (excluding hard features) to be eligible for payments, believing that this will lessen the incentive to clear vegetation and scrub.

They also are supportive of plans to exclude landowners who just sell grass or keep land eligible without active farming.

Sucklers and beef

The work from RPS considers each DAERA proposal in detail, including the potential environmental impact of new headage payments for sucklers and beef. While a suckler payment will be dependent on a quota related to historic cow numbers, there is no actual cap planned by way of a stocking rate limit.

The consultants warn that farmers might carry more cattle to ensure that they utilise the quota in full.

They also point out that a scheme that encourages farmers to finish cattle at young ages could result in a “more intensive rotation of cattle”.

Forestry and horticulture

Across agri-environment-type schemes, the RPS study is broadly supportive of the planned approach, but cautions against policies that could lead to forestry being planted in “inappropriate locations”.

A similar warning is given relating to DAERA plans to expand the local horticulture sector, with the RPS consultants advising that care should be exercised to ensure it doesn’t lead to more nutrient run-off and poor soil management.

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