Remote sensing inspections: what you need to know

First published: 09 August 2022

A patchwork of fields and wooded area taken by a drone

Our BPS advisers have updated their guidance explaining how the RPA uses remote sensing – high resolution satellite imaging - to check farmers' land against their BPS claims and what you need to be aware of if you've had an inspection report.

Here we cover how the RPA uses remote sensing – high resolution satellite imaging – to check farmers' land against their BPS claims and what you need to be aware of if you've had an inspection report.

The current basis for BPS land eligibility inspections is EU legislation that was transferred into domestic legislation prior to the 31 January 2020 when we formally commenced our exit from the EU. As a result of the Withdrawal Agreement, during 2020 BPS legislation needed to keep in line with EU legislation.

BPS inspections can be carried out by either physical land inspections by an inspector, or by remote sensing.

These inspections are different to those for cross compliance.

About remote sensing

Remote sensing is where the RPA uses satellite imaging to inspect farmers’ land. Remote sensing uses high resolution satellite images to check the land and to compare it with what the farmer has claimed on their BPS application.

While the RPA is checking the field area and land use claimed BPS on against its records, it will also check field boundaries and ineligible features that are present, as well as the suitability of land for a BPS claim as there is a minimum maintenance requirement.

Most annual eligibility inspections are carried out using remote sensing.

Satellite sweep zones are selected each year and based on either a random or risk selection. The RPA will also use remote sensing to check compliance of common land areas to check eligible cover.

Since January 2021 greening has not been required, therefore it no longer be subject to those inspections.

Found discrepancies

The RPA does find a high percentage of discrepancies each year when it inspect farms, some of which can lead to reductions in payments, in the extreme (but rare occasion) this can lead to the loss of the entire BPS payment.

The problems found include boundary changes and merges/splits not reported, as well as ineligible features not deducted from a claimed area, or the eligible area not being right.

However, following extensive proactive land change checking that has taken place since 2017 (which is not considered a BPS inspection) going forward we should not see fields being incorrectly merged or split where there are distinct boundaries in place.

This is a result of NFU working with the RPA.

The RPA is however still required to update its mapping if changes need to be made following an inspection. This activity adds to the time taken processing the inspected claim (between the time the claim is submitted, and payment issued). The outcome of these inspections can also lead to changes being made to agri-environmental schemes based on the same inspected land and in turn claim processing and payment delays.

Here is further information on remote sensing, the inspection findings and what members should consider:

When do remote sensing inspections take place?

The images are captured broadly between April and August each year in England. The weather can impact on the timescale for processing the results, as cloud cover may render some images unsuitable for use in the inspection.

What if the remote sensing cannot see what is correct?

If a query is picked up from the images, the RPA should confirm this with the farmer. This is due to imagery not always being conclusive on what is recorded.

For example, where there is overhanging woodland along a boundary line, the image will show the tree canopy/shadow masking the correct boundary, so the RPA may need to confirm exactly where the boundary is. Equally, grassland containing in field trees causes problems.

In cases where the RPA believes they need to double check the findings, an inspector will be sent out to view the parcels under query to confirm the position. This can mean a delay in the processing of the claim, but this action is ultimately to the advantage of the farmer as it prevents an incorrect outcome being recorded and in turn a wrong payment being made. 

How are remote sensing inspections reported back to farmers?

The RPA issues reports on the back of these inspections to farmers.

There is no online functionality to view or download the reports via the Rural Payments online service, but they will be emailed to the farmer or their agent.

The report itself comprises of a covering letter along with a spreadsheet which sets out the information and timeline to comply with.

The issuing of such a report signifies to the farmer that the RPA have:

  1. carried out an inspection
  2. has processed the findings
  3. any changes are reflected in the Rural Payments ‘view land’ online mapping accessed via the ‘Business Overview’ page

This online mapping should always be reviewed following such a communication. Even if the report shows what is considered to be irrelevant information, it is important there is a notification back to the farmer of the inspection process.

The report covers the findings at a farm level and any findings against individual parcels but may only show some of the parcels on the farm if they are the only ones inspected.

Even if a farmer receives an RPA communication stating they are compliant, the RPA is still required to issue a copy of the inspection report for the farmer’s records.

Where the findings are considered compliant the farmer does not need to take action.

Within the RPA’s Rural Payments service there is now the ability to view the online mapping at different points in the past and so this can be used to see where changes have been made following an inspection. More information is available in the link at the end of Question 5.

Understanding the remote sensing inspection report and checking the findings

The RPA will have checked the satellite images against the land parcel details on the BPS 2022 application and their records. The spreadsheet report provides a breakdown of the remote sensing inspection findings.

It is key for farmers to check the details carefully of all their land parcels using the ‘View land’ screens on the Rural Payments online service ‘Business Overview’ page and cross referencing this data with the following:

  1. a copy of the application submitted
  2. any pre-inspection mapping change requests made via an RLE1 form

The spreadsheet itself is split into three sections, which is set out below:

Section 1 – This section gives the base field details. This information may have changed since the application was submitted, due to any remapping post an inspection or a pre-inspection RLE1 form:

Field number
Field name (if any) OS map sheet reference National grid field number

Section 2 – This ‘Applicant Declaration’ section, as set out below, shows the information from the 2022 BPS application. However, where applicable it will include any changes the RPA has made during its initial checks of the 2022 claim, such as land uses and cropping splits or any post submission farmer amendments.

For some land parcels this may mean that the information in this section will be different to the information submitted in the 2022 claim.

It is also important to note that the measurement of claim data will be shown in hectares, even though the column shows ‘Areas (hectares) or length (metres). This is due to the fact that we no longer have a greening requirement and the form has not been updated to reflect this.

Applicant declaration
Total field size (ha) Maximum area eligible for BPS (ha) Land use Area (hectares) or length (metres)

Section 3 – The ‘Found by Remote Sensing’ section, as set out below, shows the results of the RPA’s remote sensing findings and critically any difference between what is found and claimed on (either on a length or area basis).

A negative value shown here representing an over claim or declaration by the farmer and a positive figure being considered an under claim or declaration by the farmer. There are unfortunately no summary totals provided to total up all the under and over declarations.

Found by remote sensing
Total field size (ha) Maximum area eligible for BPS (ha) Land use Area (hectares) or length (metres) found by the RPA Difference between found area and claimed area

Checking the remote sensing inspection reports with the online mapping

It is key for farmers to check the visual representation of the remote sensing findings via the details of all their land parcels using the ‘View land’ screens within the Rural Payments online service ‘Business Overview’ page before contacting the RPA about any issues.

The ‘View land’ screens will show more detail about the current mapping, such as any new boundaries and features.

The RPA works to a mapping threshold of 0.01ha. This means that features found within a parcel which are below 0.01ha will be mapped as part of the main land cover found within the parcel.

The RPA will also take the following action as a result of the overall outcome from the inspection:

  • Less than 2ha/3% of total claim value – farmer notified, inspection results imposed, any farmer challenge is considered post payment.
  • Over 2ha/3% of the total claim value – farmer notified and given 10 days to challenge the results before they are applied to the 2021 payment calculation, this timescale will be set out in the covering letter that goes out with the inspection findings. The results will be applied before payment.

The key is for farmers to check the online mapping which will be post inspection and see if it is correct or not.

Since April 2020, you now have the option to view historic maps going back to 2015. These can be accessed on the land viewer page on rural payments online.

What to do if you still do not understand the remote sensing inspection report, or do not agree with its findings

The RPA states that farmers need to write to or email them and explain what they do not understand or disagree with.

If you do not agree with the findings, then you need to supply as much supporting evidence as possible.

The covering letter or email to the inspection report suggests the need to respond within 10 days of receipt. The address to write to or send the RPA evidence is set out below.

Remember to include the SBI and business name and head up the communication with the title ‘Inspection Findings Query’.

Rural Payments Agency
PO Box 352
Worksop
S80 9FG

Or e-mail the RPA at [email protected] 

What acceptable evidence can a farmer provide to the RPA to challenge their findings, after they have viewed their mapping?

Suitable evidence could include the following:

  • annotated maps for boundary and feature changes, for example, telling the RPA if the boundary or feature is a fence, ditch, wall etc.
  • cropping records/receipts for land use.
  • photographs, if they clearly confirm the situation on the ground. For example, showing features that relate to the images. Or photographs with geo and time tags.
  • survey or professional assessment report, for example, topographic land survey with independent and accredited reviews.
  • independent documents such as seed labels, sowing records, contractors’ invoices that provide the relevant information. The RPA must be able to link these documents to the relevant land parcel or feature.

This is not a complete list - it is a list of examples. The RPA will consider each case based on the evidence provided.

How will remote sensing inspection findings impact on BPS 2022 payments?

The RPA states that farmers will need to wait until they receive their BPS 2022 claim statement to see if the inspection results have affected the payment.

Upon receipt of the claim statement, if there are any issues farmers will need to complete the BPS Payment Query Form on GOV.UK and follow the instructions to send the form to back into the RPA. Visit: GOV.UK | Complaints procedure

Other points to consider

Advanced warning – The RPA does not disclose where it is carrying out remote sensing inspections in advance.

Notification – In most cases, the farmer will not know that remote sensing has taken place, as there will be no physical inspection of the land and the farmer is unlikely to be contacted unless there is a query with the findings.

BPS amendments – Once a farmer has been informed of an inspection and a potential discrepancy, it is not possible to amend their BPS application form to mitigate any potential sanctions.

Take time to review – It is important to carefully review any information that the RPA sends out following an inspection. This is not the easiest of documentation to follow. The NFU has worked with the RPA to make things better over recent years.

Understand the situation – If the RPA asks specific questions, then these are what the farmer should respond to, but before responding to the RPA, farmers should refer to the entries made on the previous BPS claims.

It is worth reflecting on the BPS guidance on claim eligibility before contacting the RPA to ensure the farmer understands the situation they are in.

The RPA will expect the farmer to know this given the declaration signed prior to submitting the claim form. See the end of this briefing for sources of further information.

Pay attention to the findings – However small the discrepancy found by the RPA, it is important to carefully consider the findings as the RPA can impose significant penalties if lots of small areas start to add up.

Findings from inspections can be backdated to earlier years if the RPA believes something wrongly claimed on has been there for more than the current calendar year, for example a pond.

Evidence – It is helpful to take photos of any areas in dispute, to aid any future challenges.

Also, other evidence such as previous inspection findings, plans, agreements, and historical and published photos can help, especially where the RPA may suggest that an ineligible feature has been present for a number of years.

Keep copies – Please retain copies of what the RPA have sent and what is returned to the RPA.

Failure to respond – If a farmer does not respond to the RPA’s remote sensing email or letter, the RPA will process the BPS application based on the remote sensing findings.

The RPA will not use any under claims to offset any over claims that have been identified. This is important to consider given the thresholds in place within the penalty system.

Timings of payments – Like any inspection the outcome of the remote sensing findings may affect the timing of a BPS payment; payments are unlikely to be released while there are outstanding issues that need to be resolved.

Therefore, responding to the RPA’s letter promptly can allow an agreement to be reached on the remote sensing findings, allowing payments to be made without delay.

The key however, is to ensure that the findings are challenged where they are not correct, to avoid penalties being incorrectly applied.

Timescales – After a response has been sent to the RPA, it may be sometime before the outcome will be known. If there are sanctions to be applied, these will be expressed on the claim statement issued post payment.

Update RPA mapping – To avoid problems, it is important to keep the RPA mapping up to date and the area claimed BPS on under review post submission of the claim and amend accordingly.

Remember the rules in place for non-agricultural use of BPS claim land and remember that BPS claimed land needs to remain eligible for the entire year.

Remember that by updating your mapping does not automatically update your BPS claim.

As a result, if you are for example changing a field boundary, that in turn reduces the eligible field size. You need to inform both the mapping department via an RLE1 form of the changes needed to the mapping, and BPS department to adjust the claim separately of any changes made.

Further information

You can find more information about BPS land eligibility inspections and penalties on: GOV.UK | Basic Payment Scheme – rules for 2022

Alternatively search for ‘bps inspections’ on GOV.UK.

Further help

Please contact NFU CallFirst on  0370 845 8458 for further assistance.

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