Nightmare or chance to address biodiversity crisis?
ACRES First details of €1.5bn agri-environment scheme revealed
The new flagship environmental scheme, known as the Agri-Climate Rural Environment Scheme (‘ACRES’), was revealed yesterday with Minister Charlie McConalogue claiming it was an “exciting” scheme while the IFA branded it “a bureaucratic nightmare”.
The scheme, proposed as part of Ireland’s draft CAP Strategic Plan (CSP), has yet to be approved by the EU, so in providing his update, Minister Charlie McConalogue stressed that all the proposals may be subject to change.
Taoiseach Micheál Martin noted the €1.5bn scheme is the single biggest investment ever by an Irish Government.
“Climate change is a threat to all of us and to our way of life; and the agriculture sector has a crucial role to meet the challenge, while creating resilient farms for generations to come,” said the Taoiseach.
Minister McConalogue added: “This is a really exciting day for farm families and those who are interested in biodiversity. ACRES will be a really exciting and farmer-friendly scheme that will help address biodiversity decline while delivering an important income support for up to 50,000 farm families.”
The Department is working towards commencement of ACRES contracts from January 1, 2023. All farmers will have the opportunity to apply under two entry approaches: an ACRES General approach, available nationally; and an ACRES Co-operation approach, available to farmers in defined high priority geographical areas. Eight areas have been defined as having “particular environmental characteristics” and farmers in those areas may engage in the new Agri-Environment Climate Measure (AECM) through cooperation project teams. All farmers who apply under the Basic Payment Scheme will have the opportunity to apply for ACRES with both approaches offering “attractive rates of payments”.
Minister McConalogue also revealed that contracts have been awarded for management of the eight project areas for the ACRES Co-operation approach. A large section of West Cavan is included in one of the eight project areas, North Connaught Ulster, managed by The Hen Harrier Project Limited.
ACRES Co-operation builds on the learnings of the current European Innovation Partnership projects (EIPs) and, using a habitats-based approach, aims to contribute to long-term environmental improvement. Farmers participating in ACRES Co-operation will be supported by a new CP team, who will assist with implementation of the scheme using the collaborative approach trialled in the EIPs.
Junior Minister Pippa Hackett was happy that the government has reached this “very advanced stage” in the development of the ACRES scheme.
“We all know that we have no time to lose in tackling the climate and biodiversity emergencies, and this innovative scheme, incorporating results-based payments, will be a key tool in doing so. Farmers, advisers and indeed our Department have all learned a huge amount from the success of the European Innovation Partnership Projects (EIPs) in recent years. I look forward to seeing ACRES build on that success with the participation of farmers in the defined high priority geographical areas in the Co-operation approach, which will make a significant contribution to long-term environmental improvement at a landscape level.”
IFA President Tim Cullinan predicted the new scheme would likely to be “a bureaucratic nightmare”.
“While we don’t have full visibility on the exact conditions of the scheme, it looks very complicated and is likely to be tied up in red tape,” he said.
“This new scheme is extremely complicated. It will exclude many farmers and huge amounts of funding will leak to people running the ‘Co-operation model’, and to other consultants,” he said.
IFA Rural Development Chairman Michael Biggins said all farmers who apply in 2023 must be paid in the same year.
“It’s essential that all applicants under all tranches receive a payment in 2023 and the scheme cannot be limited to 50,000 participants.”
In his response to the announcement Martin Heydon, Minister of State, had welcomed the results based aspect of the scheme:
“Government’s commitment to farmers is being delivered through large-scale investments like this ACRES, where both approaches will include results based actions. This is a positive development for the environment and participants as the increased payments levels for higher scores will be an incentive for even better management of our environment.”
However, the IFA’s Mr Biggins voiced his concerns over this aspect: “Results-based measures must be realistic and suitable for all sectors. They must include a large list of options and provide for simple scoring which is easily defined. They must also be practical and achievable.
Mr Biggins was frustrated by the lack of detail: “For a scheme which is due to open this year, there are simply not enough details available to help farmers prepare,” he said.
Michael Biggins concluded by saying that to honour their pledge in the programme for government to replace REPS, “the Minister must ensure payments of €10,500 are available to all farmers in both the General and the Co-operative options.”