I thank Senator Boyhan for raising this matter and ask him to please accept the apologies of the Minister, Deputy Creed, for his absence, as he is at a funeral this morning.
On his behalf, I wish to outline the current position regarding GLAS. We are very pleased that the GLAS scheme has proved to be such a popular scheme among Irish farmers and that the original target of 50,000 participants was surpassed well ahead of the date scheduled. Given that the first approvals under the scheme run from 1 October 2015, it is a remarkable achievement that this 50,000 target was exceeded within a period of 15 months. GLAS has a maximum annual payment of €5,000 under the general scheme, with provision for payment up to €7,000, known as GLAS+, where the farmer is required to give exceptional environmental commitments in a limited number of cases. Last year we paid out almost €200 million on GLAS and have continued payments each week this year with a further €32 million paid to date.
GLAS, like previous agri-environment schemes, supports participants in improving their agricultural productivity and practices in a sustainable manner. GLAS was opened in three tranches. The issue being raised here today relates to the third tranche of the scheme, known as GLAS 3. There are more than 13,000 participants in this tranche who are required to submit a nutrient management plan to the dedicated online nutrient management planning, NMP, system operated by Teagasc. The deadline for the submission of these plans is, as Senator Boyhan pointed out, 31 March 2018. This deadline, as with all such deadlines, is being monitored on an ongoing basis. The relevant participants have received ongoing reminders of this deadline and it is matter for them now, in conjunction with their advisers, to ensure that they meet this deadline.
The GLAS scheme delivers overarching benefits to the rural environment and addresses the issues of the mitigation of the impacts of climate change, the enhancement of biodiversity and the improvement of water quality. The scheme provides valuable support to participants who deliver public goods and environmental benefits that benefit all of us. The scheme is co-funded by the national Exchequer and the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development. As required under EU regulation, two payments issue each year, namely, the advance payment followed at a later stage by the balancing payment. In 2016 and again in 2017, the advance payment represents 85% of the annual payment, with a balancing payment being 15%. The 2017 advance payments commenced on schedule in November 2017 and continue to be made on an ongoing basis as tranches of cases are cleared. The current position is that 97% of eligible participants have now received their GLAS 2017 advance payment. In some of the outstanding cases, applicants remain ineligible for payment until they complete the steps they must take before the Department can process their payment. There is nothing we can do to advance these payments until the applicant completes their obligations. In most of these cases, this relates to outstanding documentation which they must submit. As soon as this is received and assuming everything is in order, the Department will move immediately to issue payments. The main issues include the need for advisers to commence a commonage management plan in the case of participants with a commonage action and to submit the required documentation in the case of the low emission slurry spreading and rare breed actions.
It is simply not possible for the Department to make payments in these cases because the participants have not met the requirements. I appreciate that the Senator has made the same point. Updates are published weekly on the Department’s website and clearly show that steady progress is being made. While the officials are prioritising the clearing of cases and where a farmer has been contacted for additional information, it is important that any such request is responded to as the information requested is essential to finalise all checks. While the issue of payments is of importance, we must also recognise what the scheme is delivering in terms of the environmental and public goods. What the buy-in to the scheme by the farming community is achieving includes the fact that the low-input permanent pasture and the traditional hay meadow actions are delivering more than 350,000 ha of diverse grassland species. Moreover, 29,000 km of river bank are managed to protect rivers from pollution under the protection of watercourses from bovines and riparian margins actions.
There are over 200,000 ha of farmland bird habitat managed to protect bird species, over 20,000 ha of wild bird cover planted, providing winter feed for farmland birds, over 2 million trees planted, almost 5,000 farmers using new technologies to spread slurry, and 10,000 ha of arable land cultivated using minimum tillage techniques. These achievements will deliver public goods across the key areas of water quality, biodiversity and climate change, and will place Ireland in a positive position in discussions on future agri-environment schemes.
I thank the Senator for the opportunity to outline the achievements under the GLAS scheme.