REPS – The foundation of agri-environmental schemes

Image Credit: Sinéad Mohan

Noel Bardon takes a look at the history of REPS and the future of GLAS

The Rural Environmental Protection Scheme (REPS) was the first mainstream agri-environmental scheme opened to Irish farmers. The farm payment scheme, accompanied by a complement of novel ecological conservation measures, was introduced in 1994 and continued, following two revisions, until the ending of REPS 3 in 2010. Subsequent post 2003-reform environmental schemes, namely the AEOS and GLAS, borrowed heavily from REPS both in terms of scheme content and those subscribed to the policy.

European agriculture underwent immense intensification during the production centered Common Agricultural Policy of the 1960s to the late 1980s. Farm output and food commodity prices guided the direction of the agricultural policy of Brussels, as well as that from the parliaments of the member states. Ireland experienced a gross agricultural output surge of approximately 50% in the period of its joining of the EEC in 1971 to the year 1990. Changing European-wide attitudes on the societal function of farm subsidies, combined with increased public environmental awareness, led the Commission to legislate on the mandatory inclusion of agri-environmental schemes in member states’ policies, coming into effect in 1994. 

REPS focused farmers on eleven key environmental measures. The scheme sought to educate farmers on the unintended impact of their activities upon the ecosystem, whilst allocating the funds needed to implement changes to preserve these same ecosystem services that were being lost or degraded. Farmers were required to compile a five-year nutrient management plan with trained consultants to improve the input efficiency of their enterprises and rectify emerging threats to water quality. This was an important step for many producers in familiarising themselves with the newly adopted Nitrates Directive. Further measures tasked farmers with preserving wildlife habitats and protecting areas of archaeological significance present on their farms, with the respective aims of preventing further losses of biodiversity and ensuring the survival of public goods.

REPS 1, the original scheme, saw average payments to farmers reaching close to half of overall farm income at £5,000, with additional funds made available to applicants farming in Special Areas of Conservation, Natural Heritage Areas, and those grazing commonage. The scheme was particularly well subscribed to by small to medium sized drystock farmers, based mainly in the West, who had begun to struggle to compete in the single market without financial aid supplementary to their headage payments. One third of the agricultural area of Ireland was being managed under the initial REPS measures which was a significant achievement for a non-production focused farm payment.

Glas is the agri-environment scheme which was put in place as part of the Rural Development Programme 2014-2020. Uncertainty surrounding the replacement or extension of GLAS after 2020 grew as government agencies and interest groups diverted attention towards the immediate task of guiding the sector through the disruption of the pandemic combined with precarity of Brexit negotiations. 

Few details of the proposed “new REPS” alluded to in the Programme for Government have been solidified at this point, however it appears likely that GLAS will be extended until the specifics of the replacement scheme and funding allocations have been finalised. IFA Rural Development Chairman, Michael Biggins, highlighted the need for the continuation of supports to farmers currently enlisted in the scheme to avoid the challenges encountered in prior transitions between agri-environmental schemes. He stated “there must be no gaps in payments. Gaps occurred in the past, and these had a detrimental impact on farm incomes”, during a period of poor government clarity regarding the future of farm agri-ecological schemes.

The policy’s intention will likely continue to remain on the core REPS areas of biodiversity and water quality, with GHG emissions from food production playing an increasingly important role. The main challenges to a new REPS could include securing high enough payments to justify farmers’ enrolment in the scheme. Under a potentially reducing CAP budget, the allocation of ring-fenced carbon tax revenue will play an essential role in the Irish Exchequer’s contribution to agri-environmental schemes in future budgets. Encouraging farmers from all enterprise types and scales to enter the scheme may also present difficulties, particularly large tillage operators and intensive dairy producers, owing to the lower dependency of these enterprises on farm payments, as a proportion of farm income.