Details of agri-environment pilot scheme emerge

The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine has revealed the first real details of the new agri-environment pilot scheme, hand-in-hand with the opening of a public consultation on the pilot.

The scheme will be a results-based agri-environment payment scheme for “committed environmental effort”, by linking payments to the quality of environmental outcomes.

This contrasts with the ‘prescription-based’ model used in the Green, Low-Carbon Agri-Environment Scheme (GLAS), where payments are made for carrying out defined actions.

In the results-based approach, farm features are scored to identify how management practices have impacted on the environment. Scoring is calculated with reference to defined indicators, which are chosen to reflect “overall biodiversity and ecological integrity”.

In this approach, payments are linked to environmental quality. In recognition of the environmental and biodiversity quality achieved, farms with the highest scoring receive the greatest payment.

Results-based schemes can involve payments awarded solely on results achieved or may be a blended model with payments for ‘non-productive investments’ which support the delivery of biodiversity and environmental benefit, the department said.

This pilot will trial a results-based scoring and payment system with suitable measures on participating farms across the country with a view to identifying “upscaling potential” for features of the next agri-environment scheme following on from GLAS.

Project objectives, according to the department, are as follows:

  • To test the potential suitability of a results-based payment system at farm level;
  • To identify training needs for farmers, advisors and other stakeholders;
  • To identify the barriers to farmer buy-in to the results-based model;
  • To raise awareness and achieve attitude change among farmers of the value of biodiversity and other ecosystem services;
  • To test the suitability of department procedures and systems with regards to application procedures; payment procedures / systems; budgeting / financial procedures; and audit / control functions;
  • To identify control and inspection implications;
  • To test the monitoring and evaluation aspects for results-based payment actions.

Funding was announced for the pilot scheme in Budget 2021. There is expected to be a ‘Year 2’ of the pilot in 2022, subject to funding in the next budget.

The key objectives for ‘Year 1’ (2021) are:

  • Development of application and payment system;
  • Establish scoring system;
  • Identify suitable farm advisors;
  • Open application process to farmers;
  • Training for farmers and advisors;
  • On farm assessment and scoring to set baselines and Year 1 payment;
  • Identify management measures required and support actions needed at farm level to improve environmental conditions;
  • Funding applications to be made to the department for supporting actions;
  • Funding approval for supporting actions;
  • Year 1 payments to issue to farmers.

As a move away from the prescribed approach of GLAS, participants will be trained to manage their land according to the needs of the holding. The pilot will be weighted towards maintenance and enhancement of existing farm features and management rather than the creation of new features and habitats.

Grassland parcel or fields in any part of the country with potential for environmental improvement will be targeted by the pilot scheme.

Participating farmers will operate under the guidance of their trained advisor and will be expected to manage the land they bring into the pilot in a manner that produces the best possible environmental and biodiversity returns.

The pilot will be advertised nationally and will be open to farmers who have not participated in GLAS and who are not currently in an agri-environment scheme. The application process will be a single page online form.

Each participant will be expected to undertake compulsory training sessions with a payment to farmers.

Scoring system

An integrated ‘score card’ will be used to assess farm features. Scoring in Year 1 will be mainly based on the existing quality of features and will establish the 2021 payment.

The score card will include marks for the following:

  • Positive environmental / biodiversity indicators present;
  • Combined cover of positive indicators throughout the plot;
  • Combined cover of negative indicators throughout the plot;
  • Vegetation structure;
  • Management of boundary features;
  • Management of field margins;
  • Evidence of any damaging activities to vegetation, soil or water;
  • Comments/recommendations to be brought to the farmer’s attention and recommended actions to rectify or improve field score in the short/medium term.

Payment rates

The payment rates will be decided with reference to income foregone; additional costs of specific environmental management; and transaction costs. It is expected that a hybrid payment system will be used.

This payment will be made up of the following components:

  • A base payment;
  • An additional top-up payment calculated in line with the environmental and biodiversity results achieved; over the course of the pilot;
  • Payment for supporting/capital actions.

This pilot project will be subject to EU state aid rules applicable to the agricultural sector.

Public consultation

Views of interested parties regarding the design and implementation of the results based pilot are now being sought by the department.

The closing date for the receipt of views is Friday, February 26, 2021.