A year after taking up post as permanent secretary at the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA), Denis McMahon reflects on progress to date, challenges ahead and his vision going forward.
DAERA is a department that delivers for farming businesses, rural and coastal communities and one that works hard to protect and enhance our environment, our forests and coastal landscapes. This is my first year in the Department and I have been constantly impressed with the professionalism and dedication of colleagues and teams across all business areas. From the opening of our award-winning Ballykelly House on time and within budget to 100 per cent of Single Applications being made online, my colleagues can be proud of their achievements.
To understand DAERA it is important to understand that the Department is working to support a vision of a ‘living, working, active landscape valued by everyone’. At the heart of this is a balance between a healthy environment, a thriving and sustainable agri-food industry and thriving rural communities.
Protecting our environment
A primary focus for DAERA is the environment and much of this is delivered through the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA).
In 2018 we saw the fifth year of operation of the Carrier Bag Levy which marked a milestone for DAERA. The reduction in the number of bags in circulation across Northern Ireland is estimated to have reached one billion bags since the levy was introduced. This ‘small charge big change’ has meant that Northern Ireland is now a cleaner, greener place to live and do business.
DAERA remains committed to tackling environmental crime by adopting robust and effective regulation, proportionate enforcement and continuous stakeholder engagement. I believe in working and engaging with stakeholders, industry and the public on environmental issues, but we will also continue to investigate and prosecute polluters when appropriate. This has been evident over 2018, with NIEA investigating more than 550 incidents and 628 reported water pollution incidents.
It is however also important to understand the role of the Department and NIEA in encouraging sustainable development and business practices. More than 3,000 new planning consultations were managed between 1 April and 30 September 2018, an increase of 3 per cent on the same period for 2017/18. Responding to statutory consultations within the agreed time period has been especially challenging given highly complex assessment issues for agricultural livestock developments and intense demands on our scientific resources. Despite these challenges some 80 per cent of statutory consultation responses and 93 per cent of other consultations continue to be issued within target dates.
Developing partnerships and promoting sustainability
DAERA is continually developing partnerships to help achieve our goals. For example, NIEA has been joining with local companies to establish ‘prosperity agreements’. These voluntary agreements give organisations opportunities to reduce their environmental impact in ways that create prosperity and well-being. To date, companies that have signed prosperity agreements with NIEA include, AES UK & Ireland, Lakeland Dairies NI Ltd., and Coca-Cola HSB NI.
Last year also saw the launch of our Knowledge Advisory Service (KAS) located across CAFRE’s three campuses and the DAERA Direct office network. Its main function is to adopt a holistic development of farm and food businesses, where economic and environmental performance are inextricably linked.
This will ensure that productivity, environmental sustainability and resilience will be a primary focus. From an environmental perspective, the new service represents an opportunity for DAERA to better integrate environmental advice into its support for the agri-food sector.
Funding business and rural communities
DAERA spent 99.9 per cent of our £184 million resource budget and 99.8 per cent of our £39 million capital budget, exceeding our target of 90 per cent.
In December 2018, 98 per cent of farm businesses in Northern Ireland were paid their full or balance Direct Payments, totalling £281 million for the year. Again, this exceeded our target of 90 per cent with payments made to 23,278 farm businesses totalling £190 million.
Almost 3,000 applications were received under the first tier of the Farm Business Improvement Scheme and ‘letters of offer’ were issued to 1,761 farm businesses to the value of £8.65 million of which 1,670 were accepted. By December 2018 the department paid 999 claims, totalling £4.3 million.
This represents direct help for the rural economy as their resources move through the supply chain to businesses such as merchants, contractors, retailers and vets.
Animal health is understandably a tremendously important issue for the public. We want to know that animals are cared for appropriately. DAERA’s vets continue their work in tackling serious animal welfare issues such as Avian Influenza, Bluetongue, bTB and African Swine Fever. By engaging continually with the farming community and by promoting science-based best practice we can help protect our farmed animals from serious diseases.
This work is central to our role in helping to ensure that our agri-food industry is known globally for its stringent animal health standards.
In addition to farmed animals we also provide an important role in protecting the welfare of non-farmed animals. This was evident in the successful pre-Christmas portal inspection campaign with local councils to deter the illegal movement of dogs through ports in Northern Ireland to Great Britain.
In the last 12 months DAERA has also issued 1,966 passports and certificates for pets travelling to EU and third countries.
In 2018, more than 800 students received awards from Level 2 to Honours Degree from the three campuses of the College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE). CAFRE continues its industry recognised excellence in preparing its students for a wide range of exciting careers including farming, food technology, horticulture and equine industries. The results speak for themselves with, on average, over 98 per cent of our students in employment, on a gap year or progressing onto further education within six months of completing their course.
In addition, over 2,800 farmers have developed their knowledge in CAFRE’s Business Development Groups and more than 2,500 farm family members have been trained through the Farm Family Key Skills programme.
Forest and country parks
DAERA also continues to promote and manage our forest and country parks, offering many beautiful and interesting locations across Northern Ireland for everyone to enjoy.
In May last year Forest Service were presented with a prestigious international award as owners and managers of the Castlewellan Arboretum and Annesley Garden in recognition for its spectacular collection of trees.
Forest Service is also on target to achieve £9 million income from timber sales and recreation services by the end of the financial year 2018/19.
As we move forward, by continuing to engage with industry, organisations and communities we will ensure that our forests and parks continue to flourish.
Challenges for 2019 and beyond
Northern Ireland faces a significant challenge in relation to its high ammonia emissions, producing 11 per cent of UK total emissions. Some 94 per cent of ammonia emissions in Northern Ireland come from the agriculture sector and 14 per cent of agricultural emissions come from poultry. Livestock farming practice and mitigation has a key role to play in addressing Northern Ireland’s excessive ammonia emissions.
DAERA uses the best science available to inform all of its actions and policies in regard to ammonia. This includes working closely with the UK-wide monitoring and modelling programme (National Atmospheric Emission Inventory), which follows internationally accepted best practice and knowledge on ammonia and other atmospheric emissions.
In addition, DAERA has several ongoing ammonia research projects, which are studying ammonia emissions in detail in a Northern Ireland farming context. These include supplementing the existing Northern Ireland ammonia monitoring network with a number of additional monitoring sites located throughout Northern Ireland, to provide more detailed maps of local and cumulative ammonia concentrations. Separately, DAERA has commissioned the accepted UK experts on ammonia modelling to model the potential effects of combining various ammonia mitigation strategies.
Finally, there is an ongoing major research project to precisely measure the ammonia emissions of animals in each of the main livestock sectors, when kept under a range of conditions representative of Northern Ireland farming practices. The science on ammonia is already robust but it is being refined by a range of DAERA-commissioned Northern Ireland-specific research projects
As the date for the UK to exit the EU approaches, there is no doubt that there will be many challenges ahead for our industry and department. Along with other NICS departments, we have been working closely with our Whitehall counterparts and also working to develop future policies for the return of the devolved institutions.
In 2018 we undertook a stakeholder engagement exercise on our ‘Northern Ireland Agricultural Policy Framework’ document, seeking views on what a future policy agenda for Northern Ireland might look like. Over 1,300 responses were received and work is ongoing in analysing their content to inform further developmental work by the department. However, our guiding principle is that our stakeholder engagement process does not, and will not, in any way prejudge or constrain the ability of an incoming minister, Executive and Assembly to decide what is appropriate for Northern Ireland’s agricultural industry.
Looking ahead, our long-term goal for the agriculture, agri-food and fisheries industries is to promote sustainable, competitive, high performing, knowledge-based sectors that are prosperous and compliant. This needs to be seen in the context of a living environment and vibrant rural communities
While there are big challenges ahead, I am confident that our department will continue to deliver for Northern Ireland under our vision of a living, working, active landscape valued by everyone.