Scotland’s farmers are being invited to apply for agri-environment funding, but have been warned that payment rates for some options will be lower than in the past.
Rural affairs minister Fergus Ewing has announced that farmers and crofters have until 31 March to apply for the latest round of the Agri-Environment Climate Scheme (AECS).
The funding is designed to promote low carbon farming, protect the environment, improve water quality and improve public access.
It also offers support for organic farming and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
NFU Scotland’s director of policy Jonnie Hall said it was good news that the scheme was open again for applications as it had put millions into the rural economy.
“The sting in the tail is the significant reduction in rates available for some of the more popular measures,” he said. “Rates for retaining winter stubbles have been cut from £299/ha to just £96/ha. Similarly rates for cutting rush pasture are down from £35/ha to £8.45/ha and wader grazed grassland is back from £114/ha to £80/ha.”
Mr Hall said the union wanted an explanation for “such dramatic changes” as rates should reflect the income forgone or the additional requirements needed in adopting the measures.
“We are only in the third year of the scheme and we would want reassurance that the rates are not being adjusted as a means of delivering budgetary control,” he warned.
Since launching in 2015, more than 1,500 applications to the AECS have been approved worth a total of £103m.
The scheme is funded through the Scottish Rural Development Programme (SRDP) 2014-2020.
The Treasury has said that as long as contracts are signed before the UK leaves the EU then payments will be guaranteed, even if they extend beyond that date.
Producers in Northern Ireland have been warned they will need a Government Gateway account if they want to apply for the new Environmental Farming Scheme as applications must be made online.
The scheme, due to open at the end of February, will offer farmers five-year agreements for delivering a range of environmental measures.
Potential applicants without a Government Gateway account have been told to put arrangements in place now – a situation that the Ulster Farmers’ Union says is “far from ideal” given problems with rural broadband.
Dates have also been published for a series of information events aimed at preparing farmers for the opening of the scheme.
The dates are as follows, with sessions starting at 1.30pm, 4pm and 7pm:
• 01.02.17 – CAFRE, Loughry Campus, Tyrone
• 03.02.17 – CAFRE, Enniskillen Campus, Fermanagh
• 06.02.17 – The Armagh City Hotel, Armagh
• 08.02.17 – Roe Park Resort, Limavady, Londonderry
• 09.02.17 – Millbrook Lodge, Ballynahinch, Down
• 13.02.17 – CAFRE, Greenmount Campus, Antrim
• 17.02.17 – Silver Birch Hotel, Omagh, Tyrone