Eco-scheme qualification should be more reachable for many farmers, with three entirely new qualifying measures now proposed and amendments to some of the original five measures.

Farmers have to qualify for two of the measures to access their eco-scheme payment.

The Department of Agriculture envisages that it will be worth €74/ha, which equates to €2,590 every year on the average-sized farm (35ha).

The three new measures are:

  • 1. Soil sampling and, where appropriate, liming on all eligible hectares . This action can only be chosen once every three years in line with Teagasc guidance. Derogation farmers are not allowed to use this measure regarding the appropriate intervals between soil samples being taken.
  • 2. Enhanced crop diversification - tillage farmers with a crop diversification requirement can plant a break crop (beans, peas, oilseed rape or oats) as their second or third crop.

    Where a farmer has a two-crop requirement, the break crop must account for at least 25% of the arable area. Where the three-crop requirement applies, the break crop must be for at least 25% of the arable area.

  • 3. Sowing of a multi species sward (MSS) - sowing an MSS on at least 6% of eligible hectares in the year being applied on.
  • Amendments

    There are also significant amendments to the original five criteria. The "space for nature" requirement to have 7% of the farm devoted to biodiversity has been expanded.

    Farmers with over 10% of their farm fulfilling this environmental focus area requirement can apply for it to be considered as two actions and qualify or a full eco-scheme payment from this measure alone.

    The native species tree planting criteria has also been expanded. A farmer can now opt to plant one metre of hedgerow per hectare of eligible land rather than three trees per hectare.

    A double-up facility has been created for this measure too.

    Where a farmer selects to plant six native species trees per eligible hectare or two metres of hedgerow per eligible hectare, this will count as two practices and qualify a farmer for the full eco-scheme payment in the year of planting.

    The GPS-controlled fertiliser spreader measure is being expanded to allow GPS-controlled sprayers used to apply liquid fertiliser and/or plant protection products to qualify.

    Nitrogen rates

    Perhaps the biggest changes come in relation to the chemical nitrogen (N) measure. Where previously this was a very limiting 73kg/ha for all farmers, bands have been created, where the amount of N farmers can use is adjusted according to stocking rate.

    Intensive farmers in derogation, with 170kg to 210kg organic N/ha, will be allowed spread 240kg of chemical N/ha. This equates to about seven bags of CAN/acre.

    Higher-stocked derogation farmers with over 210kg organic N/ha will be set a target of 214kg chemical N/ha.

    The maximum for farmers outside derogation is 165kg chemical N/ha.

    The Department stressed that these figures are indicative only and are not yet finalised.

    Each farmer will be presented with their chemical N limit in the year of the eco-scheme application based on their stocking rate in the previous year.

    Irish Farmers' Association welcomes options

    An Irish Farmers' Association (IFA) spokesperson said it is important that the Department has come forward with more options for farmers to qualify for eco schemes.

    "Some of these measures will be of help to some farmers in accessing eco schemes. Further eco-scheme measures, particularly relating to animal welfare and anti-mircrobial resistance, need to be added to ensure all farmers have the capacity to qualify for full eco-scheme payments.

    "[The] IFA continues to call on the Minister [for Agriculture] to use the flexibility available to him to minimise the cut to the basic payment for eco schemes to well below 20%.

    "One quarter of direct payment funding going to eco schemes is excessive and cuts basic payments to the same farmers being hardest hit by CRISS and convergence measures."

    ICSA welcomes concessions

    Irish Cattle & Sheep Farmers' Association (ICSA) rural development chair Tim Farrell has welcomed concessions on the eco scheme following a lot of negotiations with the Department of Agriculture and the Minister.

    “We are relieved to see some additional options as well as improvements on the original five options proposed. This means that many farmers will find full payment under the eco scheme much more achievable now. It was clearly wrong that many farmers would have lost out as was likely under the original proposal.”

    However, Farrell added that there are ongoing discussions to deal with the issue of how forestry plantations will fit into this, as well as discussions around natura land and land which has had areas of scrub red-lined.

    “[The] ICSA has been very adamant that farmers with land parcels with pieces red-lined and deemed ineligible must be treated fairly.

    “The Department is working with the [European] Commission to ensure that, from 2023, all parcels with up to 30% scrub or trees are deemed eligible for the full BISS payment, the eco-scheme payment and that any land red-lined can contribute to the eco-scheme non-productive area (also known as space for nature).

    "For too many years, farmers with this kind of less productive or marginal land have been vilified and it is time to rectify this,” he said.