DAERA is planning to take money away from NI farmers by cutting the Environmental Farming Scheme (EFS) budget to fund projects for modernising villages and planting trees.

The funding is being reallocated within the Rural Development Programme (RDP) and will be put into the Village Renewal Scheme, the Small Woodland Grant Scheme and the Forest Expansion Scheme.

It comes as EFS, which originally had a budget of £100m, is expected to have a substantial underspend.

In the fourth tranche of the scheme last year, applications under EFS wider level fell sixfold after DAERA dropped the popular single fence measure, known as watercourse stabilisation.

The higher level of EFS proved more popular, with 966 applying for the scheme which is aimed at environmentally designated land. However, just over a quarter of applicants received letters of offer due to limited resources within DAERA for processing applications.

Taking issue

A UFU spokesperson said they understood the department wants to limit underspend, but they have taken issue with how the money is being reallocated.

“We are aggrieved that we are losing money for farmers and the environment. It is being redistributed towards wider rural projects when it could have been allocated to other farmer-focused schemes,” a UFU spokesperson said.

DAERA has confirmed that two more tranches of EFS will be rolled out during the 2021 and 2022 scheme years.

“DAERA is planning to increase capacity to offer more higher [level] agreements from the fifth round of applications,” a department spokesperson told the Irish Farmers Journal.

However, the spokesperson also confirmed that the single stockproof fence measure will not be available in the upcoming tranche of EFS, so applications are likely to remain low.

A high rejection rate in EFS wider level inspections has also come to light. The department spokesperson said that 23% of total hedge laying length claimed in 2018 and 2019 was considered not eligible for payment.

Inspections for the 2020 scheme year are ongoing but reports from EFS participants indicate that the same issue has arisen in the fourth tranche.

“Unfortunately, in most cases, farmers have not completed the work required or are failing to comply with the hedge-laying specifications detailed in the option information sheet and described in the compulsory online training,” the DAERA spokesperson maintained.

“The inspector said my hedge laying work was the best he had seen, but the old plant was cut further away from the ground than DAERA wanted, so I couldn’t get the £16/m payment,” one local farmer said.