Direct payments received by NI farmers in the EU financial period of 16 October 2022 to 15 October 2023, were the lowest in three years, analysis by the Irish Farmers Journal shows.

The latest figures recently published by Defra show that 23,865 farm businesses in NI received total direct payments of £294.1m, which works out at an average of £12,322 per farm.

This payment was received by the vast majority of NI farmers from 1 September 2022, so in practice, it is the 2022 payment. In NI, being out of the EU has allowed DAERA to pay out money six weeks earlier than in previous years when valid claims would normally have been paid from 16 October onwards.

The 2022 average received by NI farm businesses is lower than in both 2021 and 2020. In 2021, former DAERA minister Edwin Poots added £15.49m in one-off funding left over from a COVID-19 income support scheme, creating a payment pot of £310m. The average pay-out per farm business was £12,969.

In the previous year, NI farmers received an average of £13,366, with payments boosted after DAERA reallocated money from unused entitlements, resulting in a 4.3% increase in entitlement values. Farmers were also reimbursed that year for money taken off in 2019, in a process known as EU financial discipline – the process no longer happens, with NI outside the EU.

In recent years, the NI direct payment list has been topped by CAFRE, mainly due to the area payments that come from having a large 2,500 acre hill farm at Glenwherry in Co Antrim.

However, CAFRE, along with other top claimants in NI have seen their payments reduced since 2021 as a result of a decision by DAERA to modify the cap placed on payments to NI farmers.

Top 10

NI is the only part of the UK to put a limit on payments and since 2015 this was set at €150,000 for the Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) element of direct payments.

However, there was no upper limit applied to the greening element (approximately 30% of the total) or the young farmer top-ups. In 2020, CAFRE received direct payments of £240,059, with over £100,000 of that coming from the uncapped greening payment.

The change in 2021 saw DAERA remove the greening payment and incorporate it into the BPS. This BPS money was then capped at £190,000.

£190,000 limit

In 2021, eight farm businesses had their payments capped at £190,000 and as shown in Table 1, it has impacted seven farm businesses in 2022.

The top recipient is Edwin Holmes from Co Derry with a total payment of £195,917. He also appeared in the top 10 in 2021 with his BPS capped at £190,000.

The additional payment in 2022 presumably relates to money paid out by DAERA that year related to a disputed claim from a previous year.

Eight of the top 10 in 2022 were also in the same top 10 in 2021. The new names in 2022 are Co Down farmers Barry Higgins and James McClory, although both were placed in the top 20 in 2021.

Neither Co Fermanagh nor Co Armagh have farmers listed among the first 10 NI recipients.

The top Fermanagh claimant at £162,346 is Lough Erne Investments Ltd, belonging to prominent businessman Charles Crawford and family. Crawford, who is the managing director of Ready Eggs, has invested significantly in land throughout the county in recent years.

The top Armagh claimant at £156,177 is DC Cattle Ltd, belonging to large-scale beef finisher Damien Conlon.

Future years

In future years, it is likely that larger beef finishers will dominate the top of the NI list, given there is no upper limit placed on the new beef carbon reduction scheme which opened in 2024.

With a payment rate of £75 per head, a finisher slaughtering 2,000 cattle per year will bring in £150,000 in payments from this scheme alone.

It will be another two years before the impact of this payment will be seen in the NI recipient list.

It is also worth pointing out that finishers will pass much of this higher payment on to other farmers by way of higher prices for store cattle.

The same principle applies to the current BPS, with some of the top earners renting significant tracks of land to be able to draw down their payments. Ultimately it is large landowners who benefit most from the current system of area based payments.

NI remains bottom of the UK list

Farmers in NI continue to receive the lowest average BPS per farm across the UK.

Just 21 NI claimants get a payment over £150,000, with 111 receiving payments of over £100,000 and 713 with payments of over £50,000. The vast majority (20,989) get under £25,000, with the average at £12,322.

Scotland, with the largest farms by area in the UK, continues to have the highest average direct payments per farm of £29,020, paid out to 16,701 farm businesses. There is no upper limit on payments, with 223 farm businesses receiving more than the £190,000 cap that applies in NI. The top recipient in Scotland got £956,710 in direct payments in 2022.

In addition, over 10,000 livestock farmers and crofters shared over £60m Less Favoured Area support payments. Similar payments to NI farmers ended in 2018.

Wales and England

In Wales, 16,318 farmers received average direct payments of £14,418, while in England nearly 84,000 farm businesses had average payments of £14,623. The top earners in England remain the National Trust with direct support of nearly £1.7m and Dyson Farming Ltd with a payment of just under £1.6m. However, those English payments are down on previous years. In 2020, the average was £26,751, with both the top earners receiving over £3m. The following year, the UK government started a seven-year process to phase out BPS in England and move money into other schemes, including the flagship Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS).

By 2022, all BPS money was cut by 20%, with larger farms seeing reductions of up to 40%. Details of payments under ELMS did not emerge until 2023.