Farmers could find themselves at risk of fines for breaching cross-compliance legislation if a draft proposal for altering the single farm payment occupancy criteria is adopted.

At present, farmers claiming the single payment must demonstrate occupation of the land for a mandatory 10-month period in order to activate their entitlements.

However, a new proposal under consideration by Brussels could see the occupation period dropped in favour of a single date – provisionally 15 June – from the 2008 claim year.

But cross-compliance obligations would continue to cover the calendar year. This could mean that a farmer who takes possession of land and claims the SFP on 15 June would be liable for cross-compliance breaches earlier in the year.

Savills’ consultant Robert Hall said the proposal was part of Brussels’ ongoing simplification of how the SFP was delivered. Under the new rules, farmers would only have to demonstrate occupation for one day. “But a spring purchase of a farm that completed on 1 May would allow the new owner to claim the SFP from 15 June, but could face deductions for previous cross-compliance breaches that year.”

Whether breaches were deemed “negligent” or “intentional” would determine how punitive deductions were, Mr Hall said. A first negligent breach could mean a penalty of 1-5% of SFP, while an intentional first breach could put the entire payment in jeopardy.

“Farmers need to be aware of this at the contract stage of land purchase, or other land-use agreements that are often done only on a handshake. For example, over-wintered cauliflowers can often leave land in a total mess, but although the breach of cross-compliance might not be yours, you could still face liability.”