Avoid those compliance trip-ups

Farmers have become well used to inspections over the last few years.

But what’s different about the cross-compliance inspections is the sheer breadth of their coverage and the direct effect they have on support income.

As well as setting minimum standards which all Single Farm Payment claimants must meet, the Statutory Management Requirements (SMRs) and Good Agricultural and Environmental Condition (GAEC) standards govern the way land and livestock are farmed and impose environmental requirements on everyone claiming SPS.

What are the areas where I need to take particular care?

  • Hedge-cutting

Watch out for fast-approaching dates, warns Richard Wordsworth, the NFU’s Single Payment Scheme adviser.

Under GAEC15, no hedge-cutting is allowed between 1 March and 31 July.

A potential exemption for safety reasons may be allowed for roadside hedges and you should contact the local highways authority to confirm if this applies.

Having written advice from them could help you defend an allegation that you had breached GAEC15, says Mr Wordsworth.

  • Establishing green cover

Under GAEC12, which covers land not in agricultural production (but not in set-aside), a green cover crop must be established by 1 March.

GAEC12 has been clarified for 2006, making the management of short-term uncropped land slightly more flexible.

  • Apply for exemptions early

If you think you may be exempt from a cross-compliance requirement, apply for an exemption in writing as early as possible, says Mr Wordsworth.

You will need to have written confirmation that approval has been given before carrying out a derogated activity.

Last year, some exemptions took several weeks to grant, he adds, which often meant that the optimum time for performing an operation had passed by the time the exemption was granted or denied.

  • Be clear with your instructions

Give clear instructions to staff, contractors and others carrying out tasks which have a cross-compliance implication.

Explain the reason why things have to be done in a certain way or at a certain time, he says, to avoid breaches.

  • BCMS paperwork

A common breach is in discrepancies between on-farm records and BCMS paperwork.

“The BCMS is not infallible – mistakes are made but it is down to the farmer to make sure these are put right,” says Paul Dennison of Strutt & Parker’s Northallerton office.

This may take time, but it is important to create a paper trail to demonstrate to an inspector that you are on top of this, he says.

  • Untagged animals

State vets coming on to your farm, like many other officials, are obliged to inform of any cross-compliance breaches they see.

The most likely of these is untagged animals, suggests Mr Dennison.

  • Poaching

“The poaching issue (GAEC9) is still not clear cut,” he says, “but it seems DEFRA is most concerned about natural and semi-natural grassland, rather than permanent pasture and grass leys.

But this is still open to interpretation by the inspector.”

  • Two-metre margins – establishment

On some fields 2m margins will only be established for the first time after harvest 2006, because these fields were uncropped or in set-aside in 2005, points out Andrew Atkinson of Strutt & Parker, Newbury.

“The 2005 handbook required 2m margins to be established following the harvest of a crop after 15 July, 2005.

Where there was no harvest in 2005, you need not have established margins yet.

If this is the case, you are allowed to cultivate margins in advance of the 2006 harvest to establish a green cover, though this is impractical for most people.

“Beware the definition of ‘establish’,” says Mr Atkinson.

“DEFRA takes the view that as soon as a standing crop is harvested a 2m strip has been established and you mustn’t interfere with it.

It does not mean establish in the sense that a farmer would assume – i.e sowing a cover crop.

Growers creating new margins in these circumstances this year should take advice before taking action.”

Consider power-harrowing or spraying-out a sterile strip to mark the boundary of new 2m margins, adds Charles Ireland from the firm’s Cambridge office.

Ensure staff are clear where it is, otherwise the margin could inadvertently be cultivated, which would be a breach.

  • Two-metre margins – measurement

Inspectors are being rigorous in their measurement of 2m margins, says Mr Ireland, and there is apparently no room for averaging.

“Where you have a margin which measures 1.5m in one spot and 2.5m or even 3m in another, they seem to be putting that down as a breach, so you must get it right straight off.”

  • Footpath breaches

Keeping footpaths clear is another area where it won’t necessarily be the RPA inspection which lands you with a penalty, warns Mr Ireland.

Ramblers and local authority footpaths officers are just as likely to report a breach of this type.

What happens if I can’t meet some of these standards?

At best you’ll get a warning letter, at worst the loss of 100% of your SFP plus exclusion from the following year’s scheme.

One applicant’s failure to allow inspectors on to his farm has already lost him the whole of his SFP.

Any new requirements for this year?

  • You’ll need to complete a Soil Protection Review by 1 September, 2006.
  • There are seven new SMRs (see p42-49 of the handbook). These cover restrictions on the use of certain plant protection products and vet medicines, plus disease transmission measures and food and feed laws.
  • There are changes to the provisions on animal ID in SMRs 6 and 8A, plus expect some small changes to SMRs 3, 4, 5, 8A, 12 and 13 later this year.

What powers do the 200 inspectors enjoy?

Wide-ranging ones in terms of access to land, buildings and records.

If you refuse to allow an inspection, or are obstructive, or fail to give reasonable assistance, you may lose your payment and may be prosecuted.

About 1200 inspections will take place this year and they are likely to be unannounced.

A maximum of 48 hours’ notice can be given, but a phone call on the previous evening or the morning of the day of the inspection is common.

What can trigger one?

Some 20% are carried out on a random basis, but 80% are because you present a particular risk.

The latter could be because of past IACS breaches, because you have a high risk enterprise on the holding or because someone else (another authority, a member of the public or a neighbour, for instance) has reported a suspected breach.

As well as the inspectors employed by DEFRA/RPA, many other bodies will report a suspected breach of cross compliance during their own farm visits.

These include the Environment Agency, English Nature, the Ramblers Association, local authorities, local police wildlife officers, BCMS and state vets.

Is it just my SFP that could be affected by breaches of cross-compliance?

No, they can affect all direct payments including aid for energy crops and the protein crop premium.

How will my set-aside be affected?

Set-aside land must meet the cross-compliance requirements set out in the blue handbook, plus some additional GAECs (see Set-aside Handbook and Guidance for England 2006 edition).

Do the cross compliance requirements replace other legal requirements?

No, you are still bound by all other legislation, including environmental, animal health, welfare, livestock ID and tracing laws, as well as employment and safety laws.

What if there is a conflict between cross-compliance rules and those that apply in certain schemes?

If that’s the case, the scheme requirements take precedence.

This applies to Environmental Stewardship, Entry Level Stewardship pilot, Countryside Stewardship Scheme, Environmentally Sensitive Areas, Farm Woodland Premium Scheme, Energy Crops Scheme, Hill Farm Allowance, Organic Farming Scheme, Woodland Grant Scheme, English Woodland Grant Scheme, Habitat (Salt Marsh) Scheme, Wildlife Enhancement Scheme, Nature Reserve Agreements.