19 July 2002

Red tape strangling life out of Tir Gofal scheme

By Robert Davies Wales correspondent

FARMING leaders are calling for Tir Gofal, the Welsh whole farm agri-environment scheme, to be redrafted because it is underfunded and beset by red tape.

The scheme has become a focus of debate on how the EU will deliver its plans to divert more farming support payments into agri-environment schemes.

NFU Cymru president Peredur Hughes is one of many calling for the scheme to be redrafted. He claims it needs better funding and is weighed down by excessive and costly bureaucracy.

But his main criticism is that traditional family farms are being excluded because, where land area is limited, the financial benefits are outweighed by the loss of income resulting from the stocking rate reductions demanded.

Tir Gofal, which started in May 1999, has a budget of £15.4m in 2002/03 and £18.4m has been set aside for next year. But the scheme is vastly oversubscribed so that only 815 of the 2400 applicants who have met the criteria laid down have been offered agreements. Of those, only 185 are in the later stage of processing.

The remaining successful applicants are on a growing waiting list. A total of 77,000ha (190,000 acres) of farmland are managed under Tir Gofal management agreements, which apply to whole farms and last for 10 years.

Payments are made for managing key habitats, providing public access, protecting historic and archaeological features and for approved capital works, such as the restoration of traditional buildings.

But politicians from Westminster and the Welsh Assembly attending a farm walk on a Denbighshire farm, which withdrew a successful Tir Gofal application, heard calls for a simpler and more widely available scheme, administered inexpensively through the IACS system.

Mr Hughes told them: "An agri-environment scheme should encourage farmers to protect the environment and reward good farming practice. The criteria for joining should be less demanding, so that smaller farmers can access it easily without facing financial penalties."

Ifor and Eirian Evans, who own 15.7ha (39 acres) and rent 42ha (96 acres) with mountain grazing for 195 ewes from the National Trust at Gwernywel Bach, Ysbyty Ifan, withdrew their successful Tir Gofal application because although membership would have brought in a payment of £4000/year for 10 years, the 260 ewe – or 39 livestock units – cut demanded would have reduced their income by over £9000/year.

"There is absolutely no hope for people farming on our scale to benefit from Tir Gofal," said Mr Evans.

Having fenced off important wildlife habitats and planted 2700m of hedges, he felt his conservation credentials were impeccable. But he still had to run enough livestock to generate the income needed to keep his family and reinvest in his business.

Local NFU secretary Elfed Williams claimed the scheme was run by "college trained conservationists with phobias about stock reduction". They had no idea about the impact of their demands, he said. &#42

NFU Cymru president Peredur Hughes wants Tir Gofal to be redrafted.