Desperate commons farmers are having to put feed bills on credit cards to keep livestock alive, as the face further waits for their Basic Payments, according to the NFU’s North East region.
About 4,700 farmers with common land in England, many already suffering on the back of low lamb prices and flooding in the north, have found themselves at the back of the BPS payments queue.
With about 18,500 farmers in England still waiting to be paid, Rural Payments chief executive Mark Grimshaw said the intention was to have paid ’almost all eligible farmers by the end of March’, with ’few thousand’ of the more complex cases taking slightly longer’.
But many commons farmers fear they could be waiting into April and beyond, according to Laurie Norris, the regional NFU’s lead on hill and upland issues.
North East hill and upland farmers have spoken of the hardship they have been facing as a result of the delays during recent meetings.
Ms Norris said: “We have heard some desperate stories at these meetings, with some people having no choice but to put feed bills on credit cards to keep their animals alive.”
She warned the delays would ‘stretch finances well beyond breaking point’.
“With lambing time just around the corner we are extremely concerned about how many of these marginal farm businesses will survive,” she said.
She added: “Everyone I’ve spoken to has criticised the lack of meaningful communication from the Rural Payments Agency (RPA).
“We need them to be absolutely clear with those affected exactly when they should expect the payment to help cash flow management at a busy time for many on-farm.”
She described the situation as a ’double whammy’ with environmental payments for work already done also delayed, leaving some commoners without a significant payment for 12 months.
"With returns from the sheep market also depressed this year, the situation could hardly be worse," she said.
She said it was ‘frustrating to say the least’ the NFU’s ‘pragmatic’ request for the RPA to separate common land from other land (in-bye land) when processing commoners’ claims was not adopted.
The delay is due largely to a change in policy resulting from a legal case brought by those with rights over Minchinhampton and Rodborough commons, in Gloucestershire, last year.
It means all claims on a particular common now have to be resolved before the first payment on that common can be issued.
The RPA has only just started requesting missing information it needs to clarify individual common rights from commoners, who have 28 days to reply, potentially adding further delay to the process.
The NFU’s national hill and upland spokesman Robin Milton said all the applications for any common where clarification is being sought would be put on hold until all issues are resolved and urged farmers to respond quickly to the letters.
He said he would continue to ask the RPA to look at part payments as the only option faced with such an unacceptable situation.
An RPA spokesperson said last week the agency had ‘started to send letters out’ requesting the information from commons farmers, where necessary.
She said: "The RPA is working seven days a week, to get remaining payments to farmers. We are already processing, validating and verifying commons claims.
"We aim to pay almost all BPS 2015 claims by the end of March, with a few thousand of the more complex cases taking slightly longer, as they did under SPS."
She said the RPA would not repeat the mistakes of the past by making partial payments, as its focus remains on making full payments.
The North East NFU urged anyone finding themselves in very serious financial difficulties to seek help. There are a number of farming charities, including:
Addington Fund - helpline 01926 620135