The Department of Agriculture has launched a new facility on giving a preliminary estimate of the area present on a farm and classified under the heading 'space for nature' (SFN).

This heading essentially covers areas devoted to delivering a biodiversity benefit or protected landscape features.

Common examples include hedgerows, stonewalls, scrubland, etc, and this will be expanded upon later in this article.

The area of ground classified as SFN is important under the impending CAP Strategic Plan 2023-2027. Under the next CAP, the current cross-compliance regulations are being replaced by conditionality.

Conditionality is a requirement under the Basic Income Support for Sustainability (BISS) and every farmer is required to have at least 4% of their holding dedicated as SFN under measure eight of good agriculture and environment condition (GAEC). The GAECs are statutory requirements and must be adhered to.

Eco schemes

There are many new elements being introduced under the next CAP along with conditionality.

Eco schemes are a new measure being introduced and largely replace the current greening mechanism. They are funded by ring-fencing 25% of Ireland’s direct payment allocation and are voluntary measures.

The Department states that the aim of eco schemes is to reward farmers for undertaking actions beneficial to the climate, environment, water quality and biodiversity.

There are eight measures proposed and the payment rate is predicted to be in the region of €77/ha, which will be doubled for delivery of two eco scheme measures. This predicted rate of payment is based on an 85% uptake rate.

One new eco scheme called ‘Agricultural Practice 1’ will be satisfied if a farmer has at least 7% SFN on their holding.

Agricultural Practice 1 can also be used to satisfy the two eco scheme measure requirements and avail of full eco scheme payments where a farmer has at least 10% SFN on their holding.

Preliminary estimates

It is important to note that the SFN figures published on are a preliminary assessment of a farmer’s estimated space for nature.

Farmers will be asked to confirm this assessment or make changes to these features where they see necessary as part of the 2023 BISS and eco scheme application.

This will be an important process for farmers and advisers to complete accurately, as it will set the baseline for recording landscape features on farms.

SFN examples

Under conditionality, the Department advises that GAEC 8 estimates exclude commonage, forestry, GAEC 2 (wetlands and peatland protection) and GAEC 9 (environmentally sensitive permanent grassland).

Holdings possessing only lands which are excluded from contributing to GAEC 8 requirements will be deemed to automatically meet their GAEC conditionality requirement.

A number of changes were made to the eco scheme programme initially proposed and it is reported that this was undertaken to increase the environmental ambition of eco schemes.

As such, areas including commonage, natura 2000 lands, forestry, GAEC 2 (wetlands and peatlands) and GAEC 9 (environmentally sensitive permanent grasslands) cannot be counted as SFN.

However, non-productive features such as hedgerows, drains, stonewalls, scrub, etc, located in these areas can count towards the SFN area calculated.

The Department of Agriculture has also stated that the full list of the features which will quality towards SFN calculations and the relevant weightings will be outlined in the new eco schemes terms and conditions in early 2023.

Linear features, such as hedges, drains, stonewalls and margins in arable parcels, will be eligible, along with, for example, area features such as habitat, patches of scrub, rock, trees and woodland.

Measures that deliver a biodiversity benefit under the impending Agri-Climate Environment Scheme (ACRES) will not contribute to GAEC 8 or eco scheme requirements.

These include planting a new hedgerow, planting a traditional orchard, planting trees in riparian buffer zones, tree belts for ammonia capture from farmyards and tree planting.

Native trees or hedgerows planted in 2023 under agricultural practice 4 in the eco scheme will not contribute to the SFN percentage for the current year. However, this may contribute in subsequent years.

Farmers will be in a position to increase their SFN area by adopting such practices.

Ploughing championships

The Department is encouraging farmers with any questions to meet with officials at the National Ploughing Championships which take place from 20 to 22 September in Ratheniska, Co Laois.

It advises farmers to bring their login details with them to facilitate queries.