Ba mhaith liom buíochas a ghabháil leis an Seanadóir Ó Domhnaill as an cheist seo a thógáil ar an Athló sa Seanad. I want to take the opportunity, at the outset, to emphasise the Minister's and the Government's commitment to the agri-environment schemes as operated by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. The schemes put environmentally friendly farming at the forefront and recognise the vital role farmers play in delivering public goods in protecting the environment and the natural heritage for the benefit of society as a whole. The Government's commitment in this regard is evident in the fact that more than €500 million was spent by the Department on agri-environment schemes in 2010 and 2011 alone and also in the fact that, despite the financial pressures facing the Department, the Minister has provided a further €243 million in funding in 2012 for expenditure under the rural environment protection scheme, REPS, and the agri-environment options scheme, which is commonly known as AEOS.
The Minister's commitment is also the reason, despite serious budgetary pressures, he reopened the AEOS last year. Given the background of very serious economic and budgetary constraints on the Department, the Minister's decision to reopen the scheme to new participants in 2011 was a very challenging one involving very difficult choices. That said, I want to acknowledge that the commitment by Government is matched by the enthusiasm of Irish farmers who have shown a keen willingness to engage with environmental issues and an enthusiasm to adopt environmentally friendly practices since the introduction of the first agri-environment scheme.
The REPS, which was the first of the agri-environment schemes, was introduced in 1994 to promote ways of using agricultural land which are compatible with the protection and improvement of the environment, biodiversity, the landscape and its features, climate change, natural resources, water quality, the soil and genetic diversity. There are almost 31,000 participants in the REPS and their contracts will continue until expiry of the five-year contract period in each case.
The successor to the REPS — the AEOS — is a more targeted agri-environment scheme for which funding is provided from modulation funds under the Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, health check. Not only is it mandatory to spend the modulated funds on the so called new challenges, but also the EU regulation stipulates the type of actions to be funded and the kinds of effects that are required to be achieved in dealing with those challenges.
As the House will be aware, at this stage, the AEOS, as currently framed, specifically targets three challenges that have been assigned the highest priority at EU level as needing urgent action: halting the loss of biodiversity, contributing to the improvement of water quality, and combating climate change. The format of the AEOS is a menu-type approach as distinct from the whole-farm adopted approach under the REPS, consisting of actions which can be demonstrably linked to those three important challenges. The range or menu of individual measures available to farmers include traditional hay meadows in the case of biodiversity, riparian margins in the case of water quality, and minimum tillage practices in the case of climate change.
There are about 15,000 participants in AEOS I and II, which were opened to new participants in 2010 and 2011, respectively. The scheme builds on the important environmental work that commenced with the REPS in 1994 and will go some way towards addressing the serious challenges of sustainability and conservation which we face. The Minister is conscious of the number of farmers who have left the REPS in the past year or so who are anxious to continue to participate in an agri-environment scheme. He is also conscious of the need to continue to encourage and promote environmentally friendly farming. However, a decision to extend the AEOS must have regard to the budgetary realities.
The Minister is now considering the possibility of reopening the AEOS in 2012, possibly on an amended basis or on a limited scale. Any expenditure under a new scheme will have to be funded within the overall funding for the Department, beginning in 2012. The Department is already faced with a serious challenge in terms of declining budgetary resources in 2012, and the House will be aware of the decisions made and announced at budget 2012 last December to reduce expenditure in 2012. Although €1.312 billion has been provided in the Department's Vote for 2012, this represents a 19% decrease compared with 2011. The Department's expenditure ceiling as set out in the comprehensive expenditure review as agreed by the Government provides for further reduction in the Vote for the Department in 2013.
Nevertheless, the Minister is actively considering the various options for such a new AEOS but, as I have said, he must operate within the financial resources available to him. The Minister is particularly concerned about the budgetary implications of any new measure in future years. If a new AEOS is to be opened this year, it will represent a five-year commitment to each participant with the full-year cost falling to be met for the first time in 2013. Accordingly, any decision to reopen the AEOS for applications in 2012 will have to be taken in the context of the financial resources available to the Department in 2013, as agreed by the Government and, in particular, the further decisions that will have to be taken to remain within the budgetary limits that will apply. As I have stated, the question of opening the AEOS in 2012 is under active consideration and the Minister will be announcing his decision shortly.