Farmer discussions surrounding the new Agri-Climate Rural Environment Scheme (ACRES) are mainly focused on two areas – the payment rates attainable and how to ensure your farm is in the best position to gain entry to the scheme.

The Department of Agriculture has said there will be 50,000 places available, with 20,000 of these allocated to the co-operation entry route and 30,000 to the general scheme entry route.

The Department reports that there are approximately 34,796 herd numbers located in the areas designated as co-operation project areas. They expect farmer uptake in these regions to be somewhere between 60% and 70%.

This would see between 20,877 and 24,357 applicants apply, meaning this entry route is likely to be oversubscribed.

Reports indicate the Department is currently working with the co-operation teams on developing criteria to score and rank farms if applications exceed the 20,000 plan mark.

It is envisaged that this will take account of farm type and co-operation area, with the aim of having a balanced number of farms and farm types across the eight co-operation areas.

General entry route

The majority of farms will therefore be competing for the 30,000 places available through the general scheme entry route. Entry through this avenue will be governed by a tiered system, with three tiers present in the draft specifications.

Tier 1 farmers are those who are seen to possess a priority environmental asset (PEA) and it is thought that all eligible applications will receive priority access.

The PEA will secure access, but farmers must then commit to undertake a mandatory action as prescribed for the PEA or from a list of prescribed actions as detailed in Table 1.

The exception to this is farms with commonage, those participating in organics or that possess rare breeds.

Tier 2 farms are those which are either located in an area which is seen as environmentally important, farms operating at a certain stocking rate / farm size or farms willing to undertake significant actions.

Again farmers must commit to participate in at least one mandatory action.

Tier 3 farms are those which do not possess the environmental assets highlighted by the Department in either Tier 1 or Tier 2.

A scoring matrix will again be used to score and rank plans depending on the environmental assets present or the actions farmers commit to undertaking.

Farm plans developed on the basis of Tier 3 actions will achieve a low score relative to plans which fall in to Tier 1 or Tier 2.

Such Tier 3 plans will be ranked poorly, irrespective of the number of measures a farmer opts to select and a situation could arise that scoring and ranking will only be relevant where there are fewer than 30,000 applications based on Tier 1 and Tier 2.

GLAS experience

The exact details of how a farm plan will be scored will only be known when the selection criteria and associated scoring matrix is published. Reports indicate the Department is currently working on these principles and it is expected they will be published in the coming weeks.

In the Green Low-Carbon Agri-Environment Scheme there were eight selection principles agreed with the European Commission at the outset.

These included factors such as the environmental value of actions chosen, complementarity of actions with each other, the target existing environmental needs or potential of the farm, regional balance, size and type of the holding and previous engagement in agri-environment schemes.

Not all of these principles were utilised. For example, in the tranche 2 intake three principles were selected (inherent environmental value of the actions chosen; complementarity of the actions with each other and targeting existing environmental needs/potential of the farm) along with the score from the top four actions selections.

Improving eligibility

In GLAS a high number of farmers improved their chances of being accepted into the scheme by opting for the wild bird cover measure.

This lifted an application from Tier 3 to Tier 2. There are four main avenues this time around that will enhance the scoring of a plan and position it in Tier 1 and Tier 2.

Farmers who commit to organic farming will be offered priority entry, with this representing another major enticement in the Department’s drive to increase the utilisable agricultural area farmed organically.

Farmers can also commit to the conservation of rare breeds and this will also position farmers in Tier 1.

Farmers can position their plans in Tier 2 via two avenues. The first option consist of partaking in the Native Woodland Establishment scheme or agro-forestry scheme ,while the second option as outlined in Table 2 includes committing to significant tree planting.

Further information on these four options is available in the Farm Scheme and Finance section.