The aid scheme for farmers in the northwest affected by extreme flooding in 2017 has been devised in a way that minimises bureaucracy, but cannot cover every eventuality, DAERA officials told the Stormont agriculture committee on Thursday.
Explaining why the Department has come up with separate compensation rates dependent on land type, DAERA deputy secretary Norman Fulton said that much of the difference was due to the cost of restoring land covered in debris.
The lowest payment rate of £145/ha is for common land and applies to around 9% of the total area within the scope of the scheme.
Fulton explained that this common land was mainly affected by landslip and, as the advice was to leave these areas to naturally regenerate, the scheme was covering lost income, not restoration.
The £145/ha figure is an estimate of a typical gross margin on this type of land.
It is a similar principle for the £729/ha of aid for lowland ground.
It is also an estimate of the lost gross margin, but with a small additional amount built in, given that two of the 17 lowland farmers impacted had indicated that some material had been deposited on their land.
However, it was farms in the disadvantaged area (DA) and severely disadvantaged area (SDA) that were most impacted by flood debris explained Fulton, who added that, in some cases, it was over 3ft deep.
As well as the high cost of restoring this land, the £4,092/ha aid includes a contribution towards reseeding and lost gross margin.
DAERA is to write to farmers it believes are eligible for the scheme. Claims will be done via a simple online application, which should open in late July or early August.
The money is being paid out to farmers who submitted a force majeure application in 2017, effectively declaring that their land was no longer eligible for the basic payment scheme (BPS).
At the time, 223 farmers applied across 1,080ha. However, subsequent analysis by DAERA has found that the actual area damaged was slightly lower.
While he welcomed the scheme, committee chair Declan McAleer put it to Fulton that it was “regrettable” no allowance was being made for equipment or fodder damaged by the flood.
Responding, Fulton claimed that the Department could not get involved in providing aid for equipment potentially covered by insurance and that it would be “really impossible” to capture data on fodder losses from four years ago.
McAleer also highlighted that some farmers did not put in a force majeure claim, but instead “rolled up their sleeves” and got the debris cleared at their own cost.
However, when claiming BPS, land should be eligible throughout the year, so if these farmers were now claiming that the land was damaged, it potentially raises questions over whether it should have been used to claim payments in 2017, said Fulton.
He also pointed out that the £3.45m NI aid package is significantly more generous than that paid out to Donegal farmers as a result of the same weather event in 2017.
It was capped at the EU de minimis limit of €15,000 and while that limit has since increased to €25,000, it is still much lower than the £106,000 in the NI scheme.
With the UK now outside the EU, DAERA is not tied to de minimis. However, if the scheme had been administered in 2017 or 2018, the aid would have been capped at the same €15,000 per farm.