FILLING IN the SP5 shouldn”t be too difficult for most farmers, and those used to IACS forms will find much of it familiar, says Carl Atkin, director of rural research at consultant Bidwells. But there are potential stumbling blocks, he warns.

 Mr Atkin suggests tackling the field data sheets (Section 5b) first. “Getting these right is vital because this is the only chance to establish entitlements for the life of the single farm payment.

“Even if you don”t plan to claim on a particular field in 2005 you need to get everything on to the system or you will lose out in the future. And it is actually a requirement that all eligible land is put on the form if you are planning to claim any single farm payments.”

 For land that hasn”t yet been registered with the Rural Land Register an IACS 22 form should be included with the SP5, he says.

Most farmers will only need to fill in the main field data sheets, but there are also separate sections for those needing to make claims on common land or to establish authorisations for fruit, vegetable or potato (FVP) crops.

 “And those who have land in different regions of England, like moorland and severely disadvantaged areas, will need to fill out a different field data sheet for each,” adds Mr Atkin.

 “If you have made a claim before, the RPA should already have completed the details in columns B and D – the OS map reference and field area – but it is always worth checking they have got the details right.”

Farmers with steep fields may also want to have them remeasured, as the actual area could be greater than that shown on the map. “It might be worthwhile in some cases, but the cost of getting sufficient evidence to convince the RPA could make it uneconomic,” cautions Mr Atkin.

Column C looks innocuous, but is important, says Mr Atkin. “If you want to change significantly any details that the RPA has used or that field is no longer part of your holding you need to check that box.” The amended entries should be entered on to the next empty line of the sheet.

 It is worth thinking hard about this, he says, because it may be possible to claim on a larger area than was used for IACS. “Some land on the fringes of an arable field may have been ineligible before, but as long as it can satisfy good agricultural conditions (GAEC) it should be included.”

If a field needs to be split, for example if part of it is to be used as set-aside or for a non-agricultural activity, the area of the separate sections should each be recorded and identified with a letter in columns E and F. “A map showing the changes should also be included,” he adds.

The next step is to record what each field is being used for this year in column G. “There is a large list of codes to choose from, but most arable and temporary grass fields, as well as uncropped land being kept under GAEC, will be classed as OT1. Cereal crops no longer need to be differentiated unless protein payment is being claimed.”

Land set aside must also be identified here and making sure the right amount is included is vital, says Mr Atkin. “The definition of set-aside is different from under IACS and some businesses, like pure FVP growers, will be affected for the first time.”

 Most farms will have to set aside 8% of everything that is being used to establish entitlements and is not classified as permanent pasture – broadly speaking land used to grow grass and not included in a crop rotation for five years or more or used as set-aside.

But land in severely disadvantaged areas other than moorland has a lower rate of 1.3%. Totally organic holdings and those classified as smallholdings are exempt. Apart from their compulsory set-aside, farmers can take as much land out of production as they wish and still receive the SFP, as long as the land complies with GAEC.

Land to be set-aside must not have been under permanent pasture on May 15, 2003 and land taken out of production and entered into certain countryside and arable stewardship schemes also does not count. “It is a bit confusing because land that was considered permanent pasture in 2003 but has since been brought back under arable use cannot be used,” says Mr Atkin.

 Because of this potential for confusion, he reckons, to avoid potential sanctions, it might be sensible to allocate slightly more set-aside than needed. “The RPA will pick this up in their calculations and won”t allocate more set-aside entitlements than required.”

 To check that only eligible land is being claimed as set-aside, column H asks what each field was used for in 2003. “There are fewer codes to choose from than in column G, but remember that they are different.”

The next two questions are the real crux of the form and allow claimants to establish and activate entitlements, says Mr Atkin. “There may be confusion between the two, but the difference is important. “In column I you are saying how much of a field you want to be considered as eligible for entitlements for the life of the single farm payment. But there may be some cases where you don”t want to do that.”

Mr Atkin says anybody considering not establishing entitlements on all of their land should think hard, but cases could include where land is being lost to development in the near future. “If replacement land is not found a claimant”s historic SFP payments would be reduced.”

But, he adds, it is possible to establish entitlements but not activate them in column J, which is where you are saying you want to be paid for them. “This might happen because you aren”t able to satisfy the 10-month occupation requirement or if you are growing an FVP crop without authorisations (see box).

 “However, you won”t lose the right to be paid in the future as long as you activate them within three years.” If a farmer has more entitlements than land he can rotate the entitlements to keep them active.

And that, says Mr Atkin, is most of the hard work over for most farmers. “The remaining columns are self explanatory. Just remember to fill in column M if you are claiming protein payments or Hill Farming Allowance (HFA). And don”t forget to sign the sheets at the end. A surprising number do.”

For more on the SP5 form see overleaf.