Farmers Countryside Stewardship Concerns. June 26 2015 by Alistair Driver.
Defra has finally published the manual needed to apply for the new Countryside Stewardship (CSS) scheme on June 23rd – but it has left many questions unanswered for many potential applicants in England.
Defra Ministers had made it clear from the start they intended the scheme to be more onerous than its predecessor Environmental Stewardship in order to give better value-for-money for taxpayers- in particular when it comes to the new ’Mid Tier’ CSS strand versus Entry Level Stewardship (ELS).
But there are additional concerns about the record-keeping requirements associated with CSS, including, at the top of the list, requests for photographic evidence farmers have complied with its requirements.
A Defra spokesperson said: “Under the new Rural Development Programme for England, there are new EU requirements to show that our funding is being used efficiently. We are working closely with stakeholders to make sure we implement these new requirements while avoiding an unnecessary burden for farmers.”
Unanswered questions remain over Countryside Stewardship Scheme, by Alice Singleton.
After months of waiting, Defra finally announced further details of the Countryside Stewardship scheme. However, the newly published manual fails to answer all the vital questions from farmers and land managers, critics have claimed.
CLA president Henry Robinson said: “It is deeply frustrating there still remain big unanswered questions on important issues about what landowners will be undertaking if they take part in Countryside Stewardship schemes. We are concerned this will stop some businesses from making applications and, as a result, we will see good environmental schemes not happening at all.”
One specific piece of information yet to be released is the decision on dual use – where farmers and landowners can apply for different schemes on the same area of land. For those continuing with Entry Level Stewardship and Higher Level Stewardship agreements, dual use is still available until contracts come to an end.
But new Countryside Stewardship applicants will need to wait until further in the year to hear the decision; a worrying concept with an already limited application window of three months, from July 1 to September 30, 2015. Mr Robinson said: “It is unacceptable we still do not know whether landowners can make dual use claims. This leaves affected businesses with no ability to plan.”
The main detail which has been released is of the scoring system.
Different to other agri-environment schemes, applications for Countryside Stewardship agreements will be scored individually. An application will score more points if it includes options which address the priorities previously identified.
This makes the application process competitive, with applications unable to reach the minimum threshold score being deemed unsuccessful. A new package has been released containing options which will help to boost an individual score if chosen by the applicant.
Applicants will have a choice from groups of options for different farm types: arable, mixed or pastoral. If more than 3 per cent of the overall farmed land combines various options, the applicant will score additional points.
However, the discontent concern is most evident in the uplands where there are fears the transition to CSS will leave a financial black hole for already struggling farmers as Uplands Entry Level Stewardship (UELS) agreements end over the next few years. Hill farmers are worried Defra’s new environmental scheme will not replace the income provided by UELS and fear it will exacerbate a growing sense of crisis in the hills. The new Countryside Stewardship Scheme could be the ‘final nail’ for many hill farms as the uplands faces a ‘financial crisis’, farmers warned this week.
“There is quite a possibility of a huge financial crisis heading for the hills at the moment,” NFU upland spokesman Robin Milton warned this week. The Devon farmer said upland incomes and cash flow were being hit by low lamb prices, bovine TB and the prospect of late BPS and agri-environment scheme payments as administrative problems dog implementation of the new CAP. But he said the ‘gravest’ concern was the prospect of CSS agreements gradually replacing UELS, which is itself the successor to previous schemes to bolster income in the hills. Mr Milton said UELS was currently worth £100m-a-year to upland farmers. He said it would be virtually impossible to make money on CSS agreements, given the associated stocking limits and verification requirements. “The new scheme is driven by the process of validation and the needs of NGOs, not any realistic farming or environmental concern,” Mr Milton told NFU council on Tuesday.
Durham farmer Richard Betton echoed Mr Milton’s warning of a looming over a ‘crisis’ in the hills, pointing to Defra figures showing grazing hill farm incomes down 20 per cent to just £14,600 last year. In many cases, UELS would have made up a big chunk of this, while CSS, based on income foregone, will contribute little for those able or willing to access the scheme, he said. “In many cases, no sane farmer would sign up to the scheme in its current form with all the hoops to jump through,” he said, adding that, even at this late, efforts must be made to make the scheme more accessible to hill farmers. “This not the way to go ahead. It is not good for farming and the biggest tragedy is it will destroy the environment,” he said.
Hill farmers have received an uplift in their BPS this year, reflecting the unique challenges they face but also the end of UELS. Cumbrian farmer Alistair Macintosh insisted this would not go anywhere near to covering the loss of UELS. While some farmers would readily resort to farming free of environmental restriction, he warned many who came out of UELS would be unable to do so because they had already fundamentally their land and businesses under current schemes. “There will be no easy return to food production for many,” he said.
EXTRACT FROM NATURAL ENGLANDS’S WEBSITE.
There are four landscape areas of interest locally here in East Sussex, the High Weald, Low Weald, South Downs and Pevensey Levels.
2.3 Mid Tier.
Mid Tier aims to address environmental issues in the wider countryside, such as:
- reducing diffuse water pollution from agriculture; and
- improving the farmed environment for farmland birds and pollinators.
Multi-year management options and capital items, including the water capital grants in this Tier are designed to deliver environmental improvements in the wider countryside. Applicants can select from 120 management options and capital items.
2.4 Higher Tier.
Higher Tier agreements are for the most environmentally significant sites and woodlands. These sites will usually need complex management such as:
- habitat restoration and creation;
- woodland improvement;
- woodland creation and associated maintenance;
- measures for priority species, and vegetation mosaics; and
- measures for the historic environment.
Land managers will need one-to-one advice and support from Natural England or Forestry Commission advisers to help them to build their application for Higher Tier. Applicants can select from the full range of the 244 scheme options and capital grants available.
(An exception to the competitive process is applications for organic conversion and management options. These are not scored and all eligible applications will be accepted subject to the availability of budget).