Bird's eye view of farms in Northern Ireland© Design Pics Inc/REX/Shutterstock

Farmers in Northern Ireland are being urged to sign up for a voluntary on-farm environmental audit with the promise that it will reduce the chances of a cross-compliance inspection at a later date.

The Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (Daera) has launched a pilot scheme that will see farmers in a number of targeted catchment areas urged to invite an inspector to their farm in order to help identify potential environmental risks.

The idea is that the audit will allow inspectors to offer advice on how to fix minor issues that have little or no effect on the environment without the farmer being penalised.

See also: Key cross-compliance and greening rules by region

However, if an inspector discovers a significant pollution risk or breach, this will be reported to the Water Management Unit (WMU), which will then undertake a full regulatory cross-compliance inspection.

This in turn could lead to a cross-compliance breach being notified and a penalty being applied, or in more serious cases, prosecution.

Avoid fines

Daera says the aim of the scheme is to protect and improve the environment and help farmers to avoid cross-compliance fines.

Farmers who sign up to the scheme will be considered a lower risk and so will be less likely to be chosen for a mandatory cross-compliance inspection.

The pilot scheme has been developed by the WMU, Countryside Management Unit and the Ulster Farmers’ Union.

‘Positive move’

UFU president Barclay Bell described the introduction of such a scheme as a positive move.

“We believe on-farm environmental recommendations can really help farmers improve their environmental performance and comply with the rules and we are pleased to see this being delivered through the pilot scheme,” he said.

“We would encourage farmers to consider taking up the offer of this audit.”

David Small, Northern Ireland Environment Agency chief executive, said the pilot scheme did not mean it was softening its regulatory duty.

“There are many minor issues on farms that are considered to be of a very low severity and appear to have a minor effect on water quality or the wider environment, but collectively across thousands of farms that really adds up.

“Using the audits is a great way to increase awareness of possible problems and if farmers follow the recommendations, we can not only make major improvements to the quality of our water and environment, but can also reduce costs and deliver efficiencies for farmers.

“This advocacy-first approach will offer an early warning system to put right any potential environment issues and at the same time protect their payments.”

Target catchments

The target catchment areas can be viewed online:

  • Once the map has loaded, open the “Layer List” icon in the top left hand corner of map (looks like a stack of tiles)
  • Turn on “River bodies failing for phosphorous only”
  • Turn off all other options

The map will then display the target catchment areas in pink. More specific detail is found by clicking on the individual target catchment areas.