The Countryside Stewardship (CS) Scheme is settling down into a more farmer-friendly option after a wobbly start last year which saw a startlingly low rate of applications.
Clearer guidance notes and a longer application window are among measures introduced to create an easier application process for this scheme to improve the farmed environment for wildlife and reduce diffuse water pollution.
The recent removal of the £5,000 minimum claim value for Mid Tier applications has also opened up the scheme to the many farmers who were previously excluded.
Defra went on a charm offensive in a bid to attract more applicants this year, issuing a series of “myth busters” to break down what it called the “common misconceptions” surrounding the Scheme.
The fact remains that the application forms and guidance notes are undoubtedly unwieldy – stretching to 1,600 pages – which has farmers understandably weighing up reward against the time taken to apply.
There is no “one fixes all” approach, either, because differences in terrain, soil type and wildlife, coupled with regional environmental priorities, mean each application must be compiled individually, and is assessed on its own merits.
The window for Mid Tier applications, which replaced the old Entry Level Stewardship, is already open and will remain so until 30th September. This quite significant extension means applications can be in before harvest, and our consultants have more time to liaise with farmers and farm managers.
Farmers obviously know their land best, and our consultants are experienced in pinpointing the best options in terms of financial reward in what is a competitive application process, so together we can hone a successful application.
The extra effort can result in a fixed five year income, which is much-needed in the current climate. Payments are made in the Autumn, which particularly helps with cash-flow.
There are three main elements within countryside stewardship:
- Mid Tier: Five year agreements for environmental improvements in the wider countryside, including multi-year management options and capital grants.
- Higher Tier: Five year agreements for environmentally significant sites, commons and woodlands requiring more complex management, including management options and capital grants;
- Capital Grants: a range of 1-2 year grants for hedgerows and boundaries, improving water quality, developing implementation plans, feasibility studies, woodland creation (establishment), woodland improvement and tree health.
Most of the packages and options are scored against specific criteria, so not all applications are successful. There is a mix of compulsory and optional elements, with bundles of options or combinations of packages available.
Applications are ranked according to score, with farmers competing against other applicants for the payments. The competitive element was introduced to focus effort and resources where it is needed, so the Scheme has greater environmental impact.
Applicants should first look at the local priorities for their area, and use the list to select options and capital items closest to the environmental priorities for their region. To achieve a high score, farmers should ideally add items from all the tiers, including the Higher Tier option, which makes for a really competitive application.
Mid Tier applications will score higher if they follow the Farm Wildlife @ Wild Pollinator Package, are endorsed by Catchment Sensitive Farming (where applicable) or are part of a Facilitated group.
Defra has pointed out that CS areas can still also be used to meet “greening” payment requirements. It says some CS land management options can be combined with greening – for example, buffer strips – but the CS payment for these areas is adjusted to avoid “double funding”.
Farmers might consider grouping together to apply for a separate Facilitation Fund to support those who co-operate in large-scale stewardship projects. These should be at least four adjacent farms, covering a minimum 2,000 hectares, and can bring enhanced financial reward.
In summary, farmers should take a serious new look at the CS Scheme. Farmers should and do take very seriously their duty to protect and improve the land as custodians of the countryside. This Scheme gives them a real chance to make effective environmental improvements in their local area.