5 April 2002

Payments phrase to ditch ESAs

By Andrew Blake

ARABLE farmers could leave Environmentally Sensitive Area schemes in droves after clarification that they do not qualify for area aid on land voluntarily set-aside beyond the minimum 10% under an ESA project.

That is the opinion of an independent agronomist and a former farmers weekly barometer farmer after spotting a subtle change in the Arable Area Payments Scheme guide.

Dorset-based Michael Madan-Mayers says he was deeply concerned that AAPS aid on land covered by ESA agreements might have been surreptitiously abolished, and spent two weeks before Easter trying to get to the bottom of the matter.

His fears involved new wording in the AAPS explanatory guide for 2002, which had not appeared in the updated 2000 guide for 2001.

The phrase, "although you will not receive AAPS payments for the land", is tacked onto the end of paragraph 57, under the ESA section, this year. It was missing from the equivalent paragraph in the 2000 edition.

The implication is that farms which have more than the minimum 10% set-aside in an ESA scheme stand to forfeit area payments on the extra area.

"For a fortnight I tried to confirm this with DEFRA and the local NFU but had no answer," says Mr Madan-Mayers. The nearest I got before Easter was a reply from DEFRAs Exeter office saying the scheme organisers would be looking into it."

His worst fears were confirmed on Tuesday, when a Rural Payments Agency spokesman described the new phrase as "clarification" that dual AAPS and ESA payments have never been allowed.

Computer cross-checks are said to prevent it. However, Mr Madan-Mayers believes many farms have received aid from both schemes since IACS was introduced in 1993.

Former farmers weekly barometer farmer George Hosford, who has had 470ha in the South Wessex Downs ESA, freely admits to getting both payments.

"I always understood that we were fully entitled to both, otherwise we would never have gone into the ESA scheme."

Rather than closing a loophole, he believes the latest AAPS guide wording is effectively a new rule slipped in to save official embarrassment.

"No one in their right mind would go into an ESA to gain a nominal £8/ha and sacrifice £220/ha. We have had both payments since 1998 and have never been picked up.

"If this goes through it will kill the ESAs stone-dead."

&#8226 NFU spokesman Paul Ibbott says the implications of the latest phrase are under close scrutiny. &#42