With uncertainty about which party might hold the agriculture portfolio after a May Stormont election, and concerns about the future stability of the political institutions, the UFU leadership would like to see rapid progress made on a new system of agricultural support.

A DAERA public consultation on the issue closes on 15 February, and with Stormont to be dissolved at the end of March, there is limited time for decisions to be finalised.

“We have an agriculture minister who is sympathetic to farmers.

That is why we want to get this over the line – if we get the train on track, it will be much harder to turn it off,” UFU president Victor Chestnutt told members attending the Co Down roadshow event on Monday. In general, the proposals from DAERA have received a positive response from the UFU.

Among around 50 farmers in the room, some concerns were raised about the potential criteria used to access a suckler payment, whether a return to headage payments was the right approach, and why sheep have been omitted from the headage proposals.

Sheep should not be forgotten about – that will be reflected in our response

There was also some criticism for lack of reference in the DAERA document to the need to encourage longer-term land leasing in NI.

“Land tenure – it should be in there, that’s our view,” responded Chestnutt. “Sheep should not be forgotten about – that will be reflected in our response,” he added.

He said that he wanted to ensure the new system will be fair across the board, but accepted that it won’t be as simple as it is now.

He also warned farmers that they must embrace the messages around the need to farm efficiently and with the environment in mind.

“We have to move onto that page,” he said.

At present, NI has an annual financial pot of around £320m guaranteed to 2024, and with £293m of that going on direct payments, it means there is money available for a new livestock genetics database and the upcoming soil nutrient health scheme.

Minister Poots unable to launch an ammonia plan

When questioned why Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots has yet to launch a consultation on an ammonia action plan first promised in 2018, UFU president Victor Chestnutt suggested it was due to internal wrangling between the minister and his civil servants.

“The minister can’t get a plan he is prepared to announce,” said Chestnutt.

Chestnutt issues warning on TB

While he believes that both Minister Poots and DAERA chief vet Robert Huey want to progress a badger cull, UFU president Victor Chestnutt remains to be convinced that all of DAERA is onside, and generally frustrated that it has taken so long to get to this point.

Chestnutt told members on Monday that he has made clear to DAERA that he wants a positive announcement made on a cull before he steps down as UFU leader at the end of April 2022.

We came home enthused

He maintains there is sufficient cross-party support for a cull at Stormont, and after a visit to England to see how badger removal by controlled shooting operates, is convinced that a cull will benefit both farmers, and also other wildlife. “We came home enthused,” said Chestnutt.

If DAERA go ahead, they needn’t bother launching another consultation

He also warned DAERA not to proceed with plans to cut compensation for reactor animals. In the recent DAERA consultation on future TB policy, 95% of respondents were opposed.

“If DAERA go ahead, they needn’t bother launching another consultation because there would be no point,” said Chestnutt.

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