Delay to Environmental Farming Scheme Tranche 3 as department calls for review

Officials have warned of delays to Northern Ireland’s Environmental Farming Scheme after a “significant increase” in applications for Tranche 3.

The Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) said it had received significantly more than expected applications for certain options within the scheme, while uptake of some other options has been lower than envisaged.

It’s understood options such as fencing proved among the most popular.

As a result, the department has called for a review of the process. A DAERA spokesman explained that an additional assessment of Tranche 3 applications will be added to the process to ensure the EFS continues to deliver on the environmental outcomes envisaged in 2017.

The agreements were supposed to be issued in late 2019 with January 1, 2020, as the starting date.

The application window for this third tranche of EFS Higher closed on May 17, 2019, and was oversubscribed with 932 applications compared to just 300 places. Meanwhile, the EFS Wider closed on September 21.

Speaking to AgriLand, a spokesman for the department declined to give an updated timeline on when the review would be concluded or when new offers would be made.

‘Extremely high demand’

A DAERA spokesman said: “The natural world is facing many challenges, from climate change to increasing pressures on water quality and biodiversity, and it is important that we work to address them at a local level. The Environmental Farming Scheme is one way farmers can play their part.

“The scheme has so far, proven popular with the agricultural community with demand being extremely high.

The department is greatly encouraged by the enthusiasm farmers have shown towards protecting and enhancing our environment. Tranche 3 is no different, with a total of over 2,900 applications received.

The spokesman continued: “It is appropriate that we undertake some further assessment to ensure that the mix of options being applied for will continue to deliver the environmental benefits the scheme was designed to deliver and represent value for money.”

The department aims to complete this work by early 2020. Whilst this work is ongoing no further EFS agreements will be issued.

Further updates are anticipated in the new year.

Union ‘appalled’ by EFS delay

A spokesman for the Ulster Farmers’ Union said the organisation was “furious”, branding the delay “totally unacceptable”.

UFU president Ivor Ferguson highlighted that farmers who submitted applications in September for the wider scheme and May for the higher scheme, were expecting agreements to be issued any day now.

“This announcement has come completely out of the blue. It is appalling that DAERA has called for a review at this late stage and the UFU wants an explanation as to why it is needed,” he said.

“DAERA mentioned a consultation with stakeholders but this has not happened. It is pathetic that there seems to have been a last-minute panic by DAERA just as agreements were about to be issued to farmers.

Any delay in issuing agreements will put severe pressure on our farmers. It gives them less time to complete environmental works in line with the 2020 deadlines, meaning it is more likely that farmers will not be able to complete the work they wanted to do.

“Farmers have already endured a bad experience regarding the EFS following the rejection of more than 700 applications for the EFS Higher Tranche 3, due to a lack of resources to progress their applications.

“DAERA is getting a reputation for its incapability to deliver when it comes to EFS. Farmers have been left with a bad taste in their mouth due to the rejection of a significant number of higher applications in the past and to now delay around 200 people who have engaged with the higher scheme and will have to pay environmental planners, plus over 2,000 wider applicants is outrageous.”

Ferguson added that while there were issues with the EFS, there are many positives with benefits to both the farmer and the environment, however, explained that departmental issues were hindering the growth of the scheme.

It was encouraging to see so many farmers take an interest in the EFS and the high number of applicants shows that farmers are keen to improve and create habitats on their farms.

“The momentum was growing and for DAERA to pull back at this late stage will make many farmers reconsider if they should enter a future scheme which is not what anyone wants.

“DAERA needs to take a long hard look at its priorities and if it is serious about environmental improvement, then they need to let farmers get on with it and give them the confidence and support to do so,” he said.