Despite the challenging budgetary constraints facing my Department, in 2012 I allocated €20 million annually to fund the Agri-Environment Options Scheme (AEOS) and on foot of this I announced the re-opening of the scheme as AEOS 3. On the basis of previous experience in implementing agri-environmental schemes, I decided on a maximum payment of €4,000 per annum. This represents a welcome support to farmers operating to the highest environmental standards.
I was very pleased with the interest shown in the Scheme. There are currently 5,963 farmers in AEOS 3, bringing the total number taking part in the Agri-Environment Options Scheme to around 20,000. These farmers play a valuable role as custodians of our landscape. Their commitment to farming systems which deliver public goods builds on the success of previous agri-environmental schemes such as REPS. They are contributing to a sustainable future for farming in Ireland, and will assist with addressing the challenging environmental issues we face, such as loss of biodiversity, water quality and climate change.
My Department has made payments of €43.41m to AEOS 1 and 2 participants and €152.33m to REPS participants for the 2013 year, which represents a very significant disbursement of funds to the agri-environment farming sector. These payments are subject to very stringent EU audit standards, which is to be expected given that these are co-funded Schemes. All area-based schemes under the Rural Development Programme, 2007-13, are subject to EU Regulations which require detailed administrative checks on all applications, including cross checks with the Land Parcel Identification System, to be completed before payments can issue. These rigorous procedures, together with on-farm inspections, apply equally to AEOS 3, and are necessary to ensure that applications meet the scheme conditions and cross-compliance requirements.
It takes time to put these systems in place for any new Scheme, as there is a great deal of initial checking of applications and resolution of queries arising which must be carried out before progressing to payment stage. I am pleased to say that these checks are now well underway for AEOS 3 and I anticipate that payments for AEOS 3 in respect of 2013 will commence shortly. In line with the governing Regulations, the payments will issue in two tranches, a 75% payment and a 25% payment.