Payment rules could be relaxed for farmers hit by drought and wildfires

Farmers battle to save the rest of the crop after a fileld fire at Blofield in July. Picture: Mike P

Farmers battle to save the rest of the crop after a fileld fire at Blofield in July. Picture: Mike Page - Credit: Mike Page

Drought, heat and wildfires have left some farmers unable to meet the requirements of their rural grant and subsidy schemes – prompting an offer of help from government agencies.

Andrew Fundell, parter at the Norwich office of Brown & Co.

Andrew Fundell, parter at the Norwich office of Brown & Co. - Credit: Brown & Co

The advice, issued by the Rural Payments Agency, Forestry Commission, and Natural England, outlines some rules which could be relaxed in situations where land has been damaged during the ongoing heatwave.

They include:

• If land covered by an environmental stewardship scheme has suffered serious and lasting damage due to wildfire or exceptional drought, such as significant death of plants in woodland or hedgerows, this may be considered as 'force majeure' – but the agreement holder must notify Natural England within 15 working days.

• If farmers are unable to meet the requirements of their stewardship agreement because, for example, grass is ripening too early or hay must be cut early, then they can apply to Natural England for either a derogation or a 'minor and temporary adjustment' which, if approved, could allow actions like early hay cutting as long as areas with ground nesting birds are avoided.

• Farmers struggling to establish a catch crop by the August 20 deadline to meet the 'greening' criteria of their Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) agreement should continue to take all reasonable steps and keep evidence such as seed labels and a farm plan showing sowing intentions. If inspectors find the declared crop has not been established, they will consider alternative features like hedges, buffer strips or field margins. Otherwise, farmers will need to show evidence if they wish to declare 'force majeure'.

• Land eligible for BPS which is affected by wildfire will not become ineligible as a result. The land is still considered agricultural even if there is no green cover. Land that was not eligible for BPS before it was affected by wildfire, may become eligible if the scrub or bracken is cleared by the fire.

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Andrew Fundell, an agri-business consultant and partner at the Norwich office of Brown and Co, said: 'Although recent storms have given some much needed rain, the lack of soil moisture remains a concern. Aside from the immediate challenges with the current crop in the ground, farmers are also concerned about the practicalities of meeting the requirements of their BPS and stewardship schemes. So the guidance from the Rural Payments Agency and Natural England is timely.

'Those who elected on the 2018 BPS application to use catch crops to meet their Ecological Focus Areas (EFAs) have until August 20 to establish them. Although the guidance does not exempt the farmers from meeting their EFA obligations it does suggest some practical steps that can be followed in this continued dry spell.

'For those in an Environmental Stewardship or Countryside Stewardship scheme many grassland options do no permit supplementary feeding. With little or no grass growth many livestock producers have little option other than to feed hay or silage to supplement the diet. If this is the case, agreement holders will need to apply to Natural England for the necessary permission in order to avoid falling short of their obligation and risking penalties.

'Failed hedgerow or woodland planting as a result of the drought may require site specific advice. For those unfortunate enough to have experienced a field fire and lost hedgerow planting as a result, the guidance does state that Natural England should be informed within 15 working days of the fire.'