I have recently been advising a farmer in relation to an appeal against a department penalty imposed for an alleged breach of GAEC (Good Agricultural Environmental Conditions).
These are the conditions farmers claiming agricultural support payments must comply with, and which are designed to safeguard soils, habitats and landscape features on agricultural land.
A breach of GAEC can lead to financial penalties being imposed on the farmer.
The particular issue that I was advising on was the removal of drystone dykes without the department’s permission.
GAEC 7 is designed to protect landscape features and farmers must not remove or destroy drystone dykes without the prior written consent of the department.
Permission is not required to widen field entrances to enable access for livestock or farm machinery.
The department wanted to impose a penalty of a 26% reduction across all agricultural support payment schemes received by the farmer during 2021.
The reasons that the penalty was fixed at 26% were that the alleged offence was alleged to be intentional, of a permanent nature and of medium severity.
The farmer whom I was advising had removed the dykes a number of years ago when they were in a dilapidated condition.
The department became aware of the alleged breach when it received a complaint many years after the event.
When the dykes had been removed, the farmer had not been aware that removal of dilapidated dykes in a poor condition was a breach of GAEC 7.
He also disputed the length of the dykes removed, which he said was much less than the length alleged by the department.
The department publishes regular guidance in respect of compliance with GAEC.
It was only in the most recent guidance – which came into effect on 23 December 2020 – that the department explained that GAEC 7 applies to drystone dykes in all states of repair.
The guidance provides six different states of repair, from a drystone dyke being in excellent condition to simply existing as a remnant.
The appeal that is being made is on the grounds that the breach can be categorised as negligent because of a lack of knowledge on the part of the farmer that removal of a dilapidated dyke was a breach and the severity categorised as low because of the relatively short length of dyke removed.
If successful, then the penalty reduction applied across all support schemes could be reduced to 3%.
The case is a very good example of how easily farmers can be caught out even by an unintentional breach of GAEC requirements.
A version of this article first appeared in The Press and Journal.