Guidance

Standards of Good Agricultural and Environmental Condition

GAECs set Cross Compliance baseline requirements for farmers to safeguard soils, habitats and landscape features on their farmland.

Introduction

This guide offers an overview of the standards of good agricultural and environmental condition (GAECs).

GAECs form part of the requirements under Cross Compliance and apply to anyone who receives payments under Single Payment Scheme (SPS) and certain Rural Development schemes. These requirements apply in addition to underlying obligations under European and UK legislation. GAECs set requirements for farmers in respect of soils, as well as maintaining a range of habitat and landscape features which are characteristic of the English countryside. They either reinforce existing law, or were already existing good practice. In the UK, the devolved governments of England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland each define GAEC standards for their own region. This takes into account the diversity in landscape and farming practices throughout the UK.

The guide provides a complete list of the GAECs for England and links to other guides about specific GAEC standards.

What are good agricultural and environmental conditions?

You have to keep your farmland in good agricultural and environmental condition (GAEC) as part of Cross Compliance requirements - failure to meet GAEC standards may result in a reduction to your payment. This applies to programmes such as:

Specifically, the GAEC standards aim to ensure that farmers protect the three main elements of the farmed environment. These are:

  • soil and water
  • habitats and wildlife
  • landscape features

As a result of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) Health Check, the Energy Crops Scheme, Protein Crop Premium and Area Payment for Nuts scheme will end in 2012. Funding from these schemes will transfer into the SPS.

Good agricultural and environmental conditions and Cross Compliance

As a claimant of Single Payment Scheme (SPS) or certain Rural Development Programme in England (RDPE) subsidies, you need to meet standards of good agricultural and environmental conditions (GAECs) as part of your Cross Compliance requirements to protect:

  • soil and water
  • habitats and wildlife
  • landscape features

The majority of cross compliance requirements are part of existing law that all farmers must meet, even if they are not claiming subsidy.

The Rural Payments Agency (RPA), the Environment Agency (EA), Animal Health (AH) and the Veterinary Medicines Directorate (VMD) inspect farms which receive SPS funding and other direct payments to ensure they are meeting cross compliance requirements.

If you do not meet GAEC standards, RPA may reduce your payments; the percentage reduction will depend on factors such as the severity and extent of the breach. You may also face legal penalties where the cross compliance requirement is also part of domestic law.

GAEC standards provide a baseline of environmental protection for soil and water, habitats and landscape features. If your compliance requirements under the RDPE schemes - such as Environmental Stewardship - conflict with GAEC measures, then the RDPE scheme requirements will take priority.

If you want information on possible exemptions to any GAEC cross compliance requirement, you can call the RPA Customer Service Centre on 0845 603 7777 or email them at csc@rpa.gsi.gov.uk.

For guidance on complying with cross compliance standards, you can contact the Cross Compliance Helpline on 0845 345 1302.

Good agricultural and environmental condition standards for soil and water management

The good agricultural and environmental condition (GAEC) standard for soil management is GAEC 1 - Soil Protection Review (SPR).

For more information on the GAEC standards, see the guides on air, water and soil pollution: the basics and soil use.

You can complete and submit your SPR online..

There are two GAEC standards relating to water management:

  • GAEC 14 - Protection of hedgerows and watercourses
  • GAEC 18 - Water abstraction

You can access GAEC standards on the Rural Payments Agency (RPA) website.

The CAP Health Check requires the Government to implement a new standard on buffer strips next to watercourses by 2012, in order to tackle the issue of water pollution. Following the public consultation in Spring 2009, Defra decided to pursue a voluntary approach rather than a regulatory approach from 2010.

Farmers will be encouraged to put in place buffer strips of 6 meters or wider to protect watercourses in vulnerable locations. These voluntary buffers will be in addition to the current requirements under GAEC 14 and the new requirement on no-spread zones to be introduced in 2012. Advice and guidance on locating and managing buffer strips is available to farmers through Catchment Sensitive Farming Officers, Natural England Advisers, Campaign for the Farmed Environment and other farm advisers. Payments for buffer strips are also available through Entry Level Stewardship.

In 2012, a new GAEC standard will be introduced extending the current Nitrate Vulnerable Zone no-spread zones next to watercourses to all land claimed under the SPS.

The use of non-organic fertiliser and pesticide will not be allowed within two metres of the surface of a watercourse, and non-organic manure will not be allowed within ten metres of a watercourse (and within 50 metres of boreholes, springs and wells), on all farms claiming under the SPS and/or in certain land-based Rural Development Programme in England schemes.

Exemptions will apply to allow fertilisation of land near watercourses for the purposes of breeding wader birds or as a species-rich semi-natural grassland. As already required in Nitrate Vulnerable Zones, farmers will have to mark and retain a map showing all no-spread zones in order to show compliance.

Good agricultural and environmental conditions for habitats and wildlife

The GAECs provide a baseline of environmental protection for habitats and wildlife, in order to maintain biodiversity and sustainable farming.

The current GAEC standards for habitats and wildlife are:

You can also find more information in the related guides on farming and conservation: the basics and planning land use.

Permanent pasture

Permanent pasture has been defined as land that has been under grass for at least five years and has not been ploughed for other crops in that time. It includes all herbaceous plants traditionally found in natural pasture or normally included in mixtures of seeds for pasture or meadows in England, regardless of whether or not used for grazing.

Under EU legislation, each Member State is required to ensure that the national level of permanent pasture is maintained at the same level in comparison with the total area of agricultural land. Afforestation of permanent pasture that is “compatible with the environment” is exempt from this requirement providing it has been assessed under the existing Forestry EIA Regulations.

If the area of permanent pasture in England declines in comparison to the baseline 2003 figures, Defra may have to take steps to prevent any further loss of permanent pasture, especially if this decline approaches 5 per cent. If the area of permanent pasture declines by more than 10 per cent, farmers who converted pasture in the two years prior to the 10 per cent level being exceeded will be obliged to reconvert an area of land to permanent pasture and retain the land as permanent pasture for five years. In such circumstances areas converted to woodland would not be required to be converted back to permanent pasture. It is good practice to leave land in permanent pasture on steep fields and flood plains, as this can contribute to reducing erosion and soil loss during periods of heavy rain and flooding.

Payments are available under Environmental Stewardship for managing permanent pasture when farmers meet specific stocking, fertiliser and grassland management conditions, providing they have delivered the agreed environmental outcomes. Permanent pasture of high environmental interest, such as that which supports certain species or is on, or adjacent to, an SSSI, may be suitable for entry into the Higher Level Environmental Stewardship scheme.

Find contact details and guidance on managing pasture on the Natural England website.

Recapturing the environmental benefits of set-aside

Following the CAP Health Check, farmers are no longer required to set aside a portion of their land. However, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) recognises that set-aside has delivered some important environmental benefits so is encouraging farmers to pursue a voluntary approach, The Campaign for the Farmed Environment. The CFE is an industry-led initiative involving several organisations, including the National Farmers Union, the County Land & Business Association, and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, as well as Government partners such as Defra and Natural England. The campaign was launched on the 5 November 2009 and promotes activities by farmers and land managers which secure a national geographical spread of the following environmental benefits:

  • farmland birds (to address the three key requirements of wild birds, namely over-wintering feeding habitat, spring/summer breeding sites and spring feeding opportunities)
  • resource protection (to address soil conservation and water protection by locating uncropped areas, buffer strips and/or adopting agronomic practices which minimise the risk of soil erosion and diffuse pollution to water)
  • biodiversity provision (to retain/create areas of uncropped or open habitat that diversify the arable landscape and provide opportunities for open ground species, and feeding and breeding sites often for more common species)

Although farmers are not formally required to help recapture the environmental benefits of set-aside, the campaign encourages farmers to participate by undertaking measures within or outside Environmental Stewardship. The CFE will be monitored annually to assess its success. If it does not deliver the environmental benefits needed, there may be a need to introduce regulation.

Good agricultural and environmental conditions for landscape features

There are good agricultural and environmental condition (GAEC) standards designed to provide a baseline for environmental protection of landscape features, in order to maintain bio-diversity, public rights of way and amenities, and historic aspects of the landscape.

The GAEC standards for landscape features cover:

You can also see the related guides on common land and Catchment Sensitive Farming (CSF).

Natural England also provides advice and information on most aspects of managing landscape features.

For more information, see Farming and conservation: the basics.

Advisory buffer strips next to watercourses

Some day-to-day farming activities, if not done carefully, can damage the quality of water in ponds, lakes, rivers, streams or ditches on or near your land. Careful management can help prevent sediment, nutrients, bacteria, pesticides and other pollutants from reaching the water, which can reduce water quality and be harmful to aquatic life. One fairly simple way of protecting water from potentially harmful farming activities is creating a network of grass strips along riverbanks, streams, and ditches (known as riparian buffer strips). This will provide a buffer between agricultural operations and water.

Riparian buffers are areas of vegetation (usually grass) next to watercourses which provide a physical barrier that:

  • slows surface water runoff and so encourages silt to be deposited, which helps reduce the amount of sediment and soil bound pollutants entering watercourses
  • helps the soil to absorb surface water runoff and dissolved pollutants before these can reach watercourses

Dense vegetation such as thick grass makes buffer strips more effective at controlling sediment and water runoff.

Increasing the quality of freshwater is a key aim of the Water Framework Directive and reducing pollution from agricultural activities will be important in meeting these targets. Following the public consultation in Spring 2009, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) decided to pursue advisory targeting of buffer strips alongside watercourses rather than a regulatory approach. This is in addition to the existing requirements under GAEC 14, and the requirements for no-spread zones due to be introduced under a new GAEC standard in 2012. The take up of buffer strips under this voluntary approach will be monitored to ensure that the voluntary approach is providing adequate protection of water resources from agricultural pollution.

Under this voluntary approach, farmers subject to Cross Compliance are provided with guidance on locating uncultivated buffer strips in sites where they will be most effective at reducing water pollution. Payments for buffer strips are also available under the Entry Level Stewardship.

Further advice and guidance on locating buffers where they will be most effective, along with management advice, is available from the following sources amongst others:

  • Catchment Sensitive Farming Officers
  • Natural England Advisers
  • The Campaign for the Farmed Environment

GAECs and key farming tasks and dates

When carrying out key farming tasks, you will need to meet these good agricultural and environmental condition (GAECs) standards:

Record keeping

  • GAEC 1 - Soil Protection Review

Soil management, cultivation and ploughing

  • GAEC 1 - Soil Protection Review
  • GAEC 5 - Environmental Impact Assessment
  • GAEC 8 - Public rights of way
  • GAEC 14, 15 - Hedgerows and watercourses

Spraying and spreading

  • GAEC 1 - Soil Protection Review
  • GAEC 5 - Environmental Impact Assessment
  • GAEC 11 - Control of weeds
  • GAEC 14, 15 - Hedgerows and watercourses

Harvesting and post-harvest activities

  • GAEC 1 - Soil Protection Review
  • GAEC 12 - Agricultural land not in agricultural production
  • GAEC 14, 15 - Hedgerows and watercourses

Keeping livestock

  • GAEC 9 - Overgrazing

Maintenance of landscapes and protection of habitats

  • GAEC 5 - Environmental Impact Assessment
  • GAEC 6 - Sites of Special Scientific Interest
  • GAEC 7 - Scheduled monuments
  • GAEC 8 - Public rights of way
  • GAEC 9 - Overgrazing
  • GAEC 10 - Heather and grass burning
  • GAEC 11 - Control of weeds
  • GAEC 12 - Agricultural land not in agricultural production
  • GAEC 13 - Stone walls
  • GAEC 14, 15 - Hedgerows and watercourses
  • GAEC 16, 17 - Trees
  • GAEC 18 - Water abstraction

Key dates

Cross Compliance specifies key dates throughout the year when you must carry out tasks associated with GAECs and Statutory Management Requirements (SMRs) that apply to you, or refrain from certain farm activities during closed periods. There are also specified deadlines for making your SPS application. You can find key dates for GAEC and SMR activity on the RPA website.

Further information on standards of good agricultural and environmental conditions

A number of agencies can provide you with further information on GAEC standards.

In England, the Farm Advisory System advises farmers about Cross Compliance. For information, call the Cross Compliance Helpline on 0845 345 1302. Alternatively, find information on Cross Compliance requirements on their website.

The RPA is an Executive Agency of Defra and is responsible for implementing Defra’s policies on Cross Compliance. For more information about exemptions, inspections and to obtain forms, you can call the RPA Customer Service Centre on 0845 603 7777.

You can also read the guide on the SPS.

Defra administers European support policies that provide around £3 billion to UK agriculture. They also oversee a number of agencies that work with arable farmers, imports and exports of crops and implement pest and disease controls. You can call the Defra Helpline on 08459 33 55 77.

You are likely to encounter your local authority over regulations on farming, land use, food standards and the environment.

Further information

Natural England Enquiry Service

0845 600 3078

CFE Helpline

024 7685 8892

Cross Compliance Helpline

0845 345 1302

RPA Customer Service Centre

0845 603 7777

Defra Helpline

08459 33 55 77

Index to SPS Cross Compliance guidance on the RPA website

Negligent and intentional payment reduction matrices on the RPA website

Cross compliance inspection process criteria on the RPA website

Key SPS farming activities on the RPA website

CFE information and guidance on the CFE website

Soil management guidance and SPR information on the RPA website

Key dates for GAEC and SMR activity on the RPA website

Help us improve GOV.UK

Please don't include any personal or financial information, for example your National Insurance or credit card numbers.