24 March 2000

Act now on boundaries or risk losing payment

By Charles Abel

WITH time running out for new field boundary rules to be relaxed farmers need to act quickly to protect aid payments.

"If the rule stays and farmers have to measure their boundaries there is no way they will all get it done in time," warns Christopher Monk, head of Strutt & Parkers farming department at Chelmsford.

Vague guidance on how the rules will be implemented is not helping. "A single paragraph in the explanatory booklet is not enough. It is clear that the ministry does not yet have all the answers itself. It is potentially very serious."

He urges the minister to delay or cancel the rule. "The minister has £1.6bn to invest in rural development, so why not use a small amount of that to allow the old system to continue. That would indirectly help the environment."

In the meantime growers must act. "There is a lot still up in the air, but with IACS deadlines looming growers need to assume there will be no change to the rules and decide what they are going to do."

His advice is to walk the farm and measure 10 random boundaries to see what the risk is. "Measure from crop edge to crop edge and if any boundary exceeds 4m you need to think what you are going to do."

Farmers have four choices. "You could do nothing and hope things change. But that is very risky. Alternatively you could take the hedge cutter out and trim boundaries back before spring sowing. But we would not advise that on environmental grounds."

A third option would be to make a global deduction in the farms aid claim. For example, a 2% cut might cover most over-wide boundaries, apart from alongside set-aside, he comments.

"Although that would mean a smaller aid cheque, it could work out cheaper than investing time and money in re-mapping the farm," Mr Monk suggests. However, MAFF has not yet said whether such an approach is acceptable, he notes.

The fourth option is to re-map the farm. "That is a big headache, it will take a lot of time and it can cost a lot too."

Using a GPS service for such work may not be ideal, he adds. Standard systems may not be sufficiently accurate, more accurate systems are very costly and all require a good operator.

For mapping to be worthwhile further MAFF guidance is also needed, he stresses. "Where is the middle of a boundary, for example. That could be important if neighbours have differing views."

What constitutes the crop edge is also unclear. "Is it the edge of the ploughing, the edge of the drilling or the edge of a sterile strip? It is not clear. And where long-term set-aside has grown up alongside a hedge where is the field boundary then?"

How a variable width boundary should be assessed is also unclear. "Should it be averaged, or is it the widest point that counts?

"Clearly farmers need a lot more guidance before they start mapping," Mr Monk concludes.

BOUNDARY OPTIONS

&#8226 Measure all boundaries, re-map fields and adjust aid claim – lot of work.

&#8226 Make global reduction in claim to reflect wide boundaries – MAFF may not accept.

&#8226 Do nothing and hope – risky.

&#8226 Trim hedges back before spring sowing – not recommended.

BOUNDARY OPTIONS

&#8226 Measure all boundaries, re-map fields and adjust aid claim – lot of work.

&#8226 Make global reduction in claim to reflect wide boundaries – MAFF may not accept.

&#8226 Do nothing and hope – risky.

&#8226 Trim hedges back before spring sowing – not recommended.