There is a cloud on the horizon relating to the eligibility of heather covered land to receive single farm payment (SFP). This issue has come to a head in Northern Ireland where the EU auditors have decreed that heather over 50 cm tall is not suitable for grazing, and therefore is not eligible land for the purposes of claiming SFP.
The Scottish Farmer reported on this issue in the article on 24 March 2012.The EU has advised the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development in Northern Ireland (DARDNI) that heather can be considered eligible on a case-by-case basis, providing it is capable of sustaining agricultural activity, for example, grazing livestock, and is maintained in good agricultural and environmental condition. Therefore, heather can be considered eligible if it is:
- Accessible to grazing livestock, and
- Has significant forage value, and
- Is used for agricultural purposes (i.e. grazed by livestock).
In Northern Ireland this issue has spawned its own guidance booklet (see page 14) that describes how to assess what heather is eligible both in terms of height and if over 50 cm, how to assess the area of heather within a single field that can be accepted before becoming ineligible (20% > 50cm max). This is a nightmare for farmers and landowners.
Note that under the DARDNI guidance, cutting or burning of heather on its own does not make heather eligible as this management does not constitute "agricultural activity".
The issue centres around the definition of “permanent grassland" which is defined as "land used to grow grasses or other herbaceous forage naturally (self-seeded) or through cultivation (sown) and that has not been included in the crop rotation of the holding for 5 years or longer; it may include other species suitable for grazing provided that the grasses and other herbaceous forage remain predominant".
The concern is that the definition of herbaceous forage would exclude large expanses of tall heather. It may be that the current CAP regimes can continue, outside Northern Ireland as existing, but the review of the CAP, which is due to come into effect in 2014, may introduce some unpalatable changes.
This is something that The Heather Trust will be working hard on. The situation in Northern Ireland is unacceptable, but it will be important to make sure that this epidemic of idiotic bureaucracy does not spread to the rest of the UK. If it does it will be another example of the law of unintended consequences. It would be bad for owners of uplands, bad for farmers, bad for heather, bad for biodiversity, but good for sales of handheld GPS units.