Full details of the government’s countryside stewardship scheme will not be available until mid-July – even though the scheme opened for applications this week.
The £900m initiative, which replaces entry-level and higher-level environmental stewardship, opened on Wednesday (1 July).
Defra said the grants would help pay for “thousands of individual agreements” to farmers, landowners and foresters who protect the English countryside.
But full terms and conditions for the scheme have still not been published, prompting the NFU to warn farmers and other potential applicants against formally committing to countryside stewardship before they know what they are signing up to.
A Defra spokesperson said the department was working hard to ensure that farmers had the information need to apply.
She added: “We continue to work closely with stakeholders to finalise the terms and conditions of the scheme, which will be available from mid-July.”
Scheme deadline extended
It is not the only hiccup facing the scheme. This week, Defra was forced to extend the 30 June deadline for expressions of interest in higher level countryside stewardship by two weeks to 15 July so farmers and their agents have more time to apply.
Defra said the scheme will build on existing agri-environment or woodland grant schemes.
A new competitive approach will ensure that funding goes to those schemes that will make the biggest possible difference to the local environment, it claims.
The scheme focuses on four priorities: habitat restoration and creation, providing pollen and nectar sources for wild pollinators, creating and managing existing woodland, and making water cleaner and reducing flood risks.
Launching the scheme, Defra secretary Liz Truss said £85m had been set aside to support projects in 2016.
“This is the first-ever countryside stewardship scheme that specifically combines help for bees and pollinators as well as wildlife, woodland and rivers,” she said.
But the fact that the scheme is being run on a competitive basis – and that there is less money available than previously – also means that some farmers, including some who have previously managed land under environmental stewardship, will see applications rejected.
Applications will be ranked and money only awarded to those who will make the biggest improvements in their local area.
Extra points will be given to agreements working to support bees, pollinators and other farm wildlife.