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Making the best of the best-laid schemes

Lucie Howatson reflects on the early stages of the new Agri-Environment Climate Scheme.

With the second round of the new Agri-Environment Climate Scheme (AECS) applications under our belts, now is a good time to reflect on the early stages of the new scheme.

While 2015 CAP reform brought huge funding changes in the agricultural sector, a strong parallel exist between the previous SRDP scheme and the new AECS, especially when focusing on environmental prescriptions. 

As a firm, we have seen a sharp uptake in the number of environmental applications this year compared with last year. Many clients decided to hold off from applying under the scheme until the greening requirements for the new Basic Payment Scheme were fully understood and implemented.

Environmental Focus Areas, which to many farmers are an integral part of meeting their greening requirements, have the potential to conflict with AECS prescriptions, and issues of double-funding are to be avoided at all costs. 

Current low commodity prices have contributed to making the AECS more appealing. The scheme also has the potential to make poorer areas of farmland more productive. Payments under the scheme cam be converted into quite good annual returns while at the same time enhancing the amenity value of the land. This can often be achieved with little change to current management, especially where similar prescriptions were managed under the previous scheme.

To date, meeting the new eligibility criteria, digesting changing guidance, the new online application system and the initial delay in the approval of the first round of applications have all brought their own challenges. We anticipate that the 2016 round of applications will be competitive, with those who held off in the first year having had time to put together thoughtful and detailed applications, which will warrant serious consideration. We look forward to seeing the outcome of these later in the year.