More farmers in England than anticipated look to have chosen to use buffer zones and hedgerows to meet ecological focus area (EFA) requirements, according to the results of a survey of more than 2,000 farmers.
The NFU surveyed 2,455 members, picked at random, across three periods between 15 April and 6 June 2015 as part of its efforts to assess the progress of Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) applications.
The results give an insight into what the process was like and how farmers have implemented the rules. They also point to some of the lessons that can be learned for the 2016 application process.
Data used to alert the RPA
NFU vice-president Guy Smith said the findings helped the union alert the Rural Payments Agency (RPA) when it emerged that fewer people had been sent their BPS claim form than expected.
Have your say
What lessons do you think need to be learned from the 2015 BPS application process? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
But he added the findings also gave the union valuable information to help it lobby at a political level for changes to the scheme.
For example, 23% of people reported the three-crop rule had changed their cropping which validated the NFU’s comments to the commission that the crop diversification rule artificially interferes with markets and makes the BPS system unnecessarily bureaucratic, he said.
The options farmers had chosen to fulfil their EFA requirement were also interesting.
“The idea that everyone would keep it simple and go for pulses has proven rather unfounded.
“The slight worry is that features such as hedges and buffer zones might prove more complicated for applicants to enter and for the RPA to inspect and validate.”
How incorrect information came to light
Another finding was the relatively high number of people who reported that the information on their forms and maps was not correct.
There are fears many others might have not even noticed such errors.
Land agent George Paton of WebbPaton said it was important for the industry that the RPA was lenient when it came to farmers who had made mistakes.
“There will be human errors when dealing with paper applications. It is so easy to transpose numbers when you are adding lines,” he added.
Mr Paton said an online system did at least help to alert people to potential errors.
But he had been trialling a system for the RPA during April and May and it was not user-friendly.
“We have been trialling the Siti Farmer system and that is not the solution for next year,” he said.
“The programme behind it seems OK, but the interface is so difficult you need to sit with the manual just to use it. We gave up in the end.”
David Hill, south-east regional surveyor and interim agricultural adviser for the Country Land and Business Association, said he wanted to see the new online system for 2016 fully operational by January at the latest.
“I think it will take time for people to get used to it. It needs to be in front of people quite early to give them enough time to adjust.”