Week one of our series on Rural Environment Protection Scheme (REPS) looked at how it built such a lasting legacy among farmers and why there is such a strong anticipation surrounding the promise of a new REPS in the programme for government. This week, we explore what format a new scheme could follow and the measures that could feed into its design.

The first point that should be highlighted is that there has been a major shift in the manner in which schemes have been designed since REPS ended and also that the impending CAP reform is likely to feature a much higher agri-environmental input as a baseline requirement for receiving direct payments. Both of these factors mean that any new REPS is likely to be well removed from the popular programme farmers remember.

Young bulls grazing, scratching and grooming on the Hill of Faughart, Co Louth, near the Cooley Mountains.

Whole farm v targeted approach

REPS used a “whole farm” approach which required farmers to select and implement a suite of measures across their entire farm. There were typically 11 core management measures with nutrient management planning, protection of wildlife habitats and maintenance of field boundaries/hedgerow and tree planting all featuring strongly.

The area-based payment mechanism was, however, deemed as difficult to justify given that some farms received greater payments solely by merit of their size rather than the work undertaken.

A number of reports highlighted this as a significant concern and questioned the biodiversity benefits. None of the reports assessed the socio-economic benefits of REPS and many recommended that a results-based payment model would be more suitable for subsequent schemes.

The REPS supplementary measures programme provided some direction in this area. Farmers could secure additional payments for undertaking these supplementary measures. For example, farmers could plant riparian zones (trees planted between field margins and water courses) and secure a payment of €724.50/ha.

Many of these supplementary measures were subsequently incorporated in the results or action-based Agri-Environment Options Scheme (AEOS) and the Green Low-Carbon Agri-Environmental Scheme (GLAS).

Change of direction

This signalled the change in approach of agri-environmental scheme payments based on a “cost incurred, income foregone” basis. This means all GLAS measures, such as the popular measures of wildbird cover, traditional hay meadows and low-input permanent pasture have been costed to put a price on what it costs the farmer to implement it, while also covering any resulting loss of income from taking the land out of conventional production.

The combination of measures which could be selected capped payments in the region of €5,000 with few exceeding this level.

A move away from “action-based” schemes seems unlikely with evidence tending to show they deliver greater environmental results. With some farmers disillusioned with a number of GLAS measures, attractive payment rates will be required to promote a significant uptake.

The ever rising bar

As detailed, the expectations on farmers to deliver for the environment is rising. The justification for CAP payments no longer comes from food security and support for rural areas.

It is a change that has been happening since REPS was first introduced in 1994. Back then, agri-environmental schemes were a new concept and many farmers found the measures easy to comply with and felt they delivered results also.

A survey of REPS farmers found 94% felt it helped protect the environment, 77% felt it affected water management and 77% felt it affected biodiversity on the farm.

However, over time, many of the actions in these schemes have been incorporated into the basic requirements farmers must meet to secure their direct payment. The EU does not permit double funding and so the requirements in agri-environmental schemes have been increased too.

If the new eco-schemes incorporate environmental measures that would have previously featured in agri-environmental schemes then the bar could be set even higher in a new REPS.

View from Boolamore in Co Wexford of the land which has begun to recover from the drought conditions over the last few months. \ Philip Doyle

Compliance burden

The day-to-day increase in paperwork and adherence with nitrates, cross compliance, quality assurance, etc, has left many farmers feeling schemes have become more complicated and demanding. It is a process that doesn’t look like slowing in the next CAP either with the European Green Deal also setting ambitious targets.

Take nutrient management planning, for example. It used to be one of 11 REPS measures securing a payment for farmers. The provisional CAP regulations will make it compulsory for all farmers while future changes to the Nitrates Directive are likely to change the landscape for intensive producers.

Tillage farmers will perhaps feel the effects of this more than any other sector. The current CAP already demands the most of them to meet Greening requirements. Measures such as ecological focus areas and crop diversification are stated to become basic requirements, attracting no extra payment.

The challenge for policymakers to solve will be this: to design a scheme that delivers environmental benefits above and beyond those currently being achieved while also making the scheme attractive enough to encourage a large number of farmers to sign up. It is not an easy tightrope to walk.

Possible evolution, not revolution

When reviewing what has and hasn’t worked in old schemes, it is also important to keep an eye on what changes are coming down the tracks in an environmental context.

The next CAP is not yet finalised although it has taken on a definitive shape and one which will further prioritise spending on environmental measures.

It is likely that 40% of all CAP spending will be based on environmental measures.

Based on an estimation of Ireland’s budget, this could see €5bn allocated to environmental spending over the next seven years.

Direct payments

So, what could it mean for farmers? The first point to note is that direct payments are changing. Greening, which currently accounts for 30% of your Basic Payment Scheme, is being scrapped and incorporated into cross-compliance.

Eco-schemes will replace Greening and farmers will have the choice to opt in or out of them.

There is no indication yet of what will be covered in such schemes but it is important to note they could be paid on a per-hectare “top-up” basis or similar to GLAS on a per-action basis. So before even applying for a new REPS, farmers will have to meet a higher standard of cross-compliance and opt in to an eco-scheme just to secure their existing direct payment.

It is envisaged that the possibility of blending per-hectare payments with action-based payments in an agri-environmental scheme could maximise farms’ contributions to the environment as well as to bottom line.

European Innovation Partnership

The European Innovation Partnership (EIP) for Agricultural Productivity and Sustainability (EIP-AGRI) Operational Groups has been raised as potentially identifying a model or aspects on which future schemes could be based. The pilot projects are co-funded by the EU and Department of Agriculture with a fund of €59m set aside as part of the RDP 2014-2020.

There are 23 projects nationwide, with each project focused on a particular topic that is specific to a region. For example, the Sustainable Uplands Agri-Environment Scheme (SUAS) looks at establishing commonage groups in the Wicklow/Dublin uplands who will take responsibility for the development, implementation and delivery of their own Commonage Management Plan (CMP). There are payments available which incentivise participants to develop their own solutions to problems.

Other high-profile projects include the Hen Harrier Project, Conservation of the Breeding Curlew in Ireland, Pearl Mussel Project, Sustainable Agricultural Plan for the MacGuillycuddy Reeks and the Biodiversity Regeneration in a Dairying Environment (BRIDE). The Burren Programme is the most successful example of a regional project which has evolved and developed over time to one that is delivering real gains in protecting an important resource.

Likely format

It is not feasible to think that a new REPS will follow the EIP-AGRI format given the administration burden and investment in IT infrastructure this would require. Such a move would also push the rollout of a new REPS well into the future and would not satisfy farmer expectations of seeing a new scheme being available in the not too distant future.

It is reasonable to assume, however, that there may be some regional diversification in schemes and that aspects of EIP-AGRI projects could be incorporated for different regions– for example, it is hard to see farmers in a hill and mountain area selecting the same measures as farmers on some of the best land in the country.

Addressing soil fertility issues has also been raised as a sensible measure that would deliver greatly in improving the efficiency in which nutrients are used. Another area which could feature strongly is small-scale afforestation and tree planting given how far the Government’s afforestation targets are falling short. Rewetting of boglands and nutrient use in specific water catchments are also topical at present.

Case study: Low-input permanent pasture

One of the main measures in the current GLAS is low-input permanent pasture (LIPP). In a single year, it accounts for one-third of all GLAS spending, roughly €69m. There are 258,000ha under it across some 36,700 farms, making it the most popular measure.

Almost 80% of sites surveyed as part of a GLAS evaluation were found to meet the necessary criteria.

So what could happen to a measure like this? Results-based payments have been trialled over the current CAP through locally-led schemes such as the Burren Programme. One issue identified with LIPP was scrub encroachment. In regions where this is identified an additional payment to address, this could be offered, again similar to locally led schemes.

The difficulty could be on the administrative side of the house. Having to assess and grade 258,000ha of LIPP annually would be a significant burden.

However, newer technologies such as satellite imagery or drones could put such a system closer in reach.

Intensive enterprises

There is a lot of discussion on whether intensive dairy farmers will be permitted to enter a new REPS. It is not just dairy farmers in this bracket. However, there are likely to be some differences in the way any derogation farmer or a producer who is exceeding 170kg organic nitrogen per hectare but remaining under the limit by means of exporting slurry is treated for inclusion. We are already seeing this become apparent under the Nitrates derogation with tighter rules surrounding slurry spreading, concentrate feeding, reseeding and nutrient management, for example.

If these intensive producers are offered inclusion in any future REPS then it is probable that the bar will be set much higher and the suite of measures will be significantly different to extensive producers.