Farmer Focus: Environmental scheme uptake disappoints again

There seems to be a lot more enthusiasm around joining the board of Natural England than there is for applying for its schemes. But why?

Recently Natural England (NE) advertised for two people to join its board. It advertised widely and managed to attract 116 applications. 

The public appointments recruitment process will now grind into action until just two of the applicants are left standing.

It is satisfying to see this level of competition with so many people wishing to help to provide their expertise, time and commitment to direct the organisation.

See also: Read more from our Arable Farmer Focus writers

It is then a great pity that there has been another poor level of applications for NE schemes for 2018.

Pre-2016 almost 70% of farmed land was in environmental schemes and at that time it was forecast that 20,000 schemes were due to end in the next five years.

The level of applications for the new countryside stewardship schemes (CSS) in their first three years of existence has been very disappointing. Despite heavy promotion of the schemes by NE and relevant non-governmental organisations, 2018 numbers are only marginally up on those in 2017.

There has been a reluctance among land managers to renew their schemes. A lot of this is due to a loss of confidence in the management of the schemes by IT systems which are not fit for purpose and continuing late payments.

Options have also been severely reduced from what was available in previous higher level schemes and entry level schemes.

Shaky start

Mapping problems continue and insiders tell me that repeated spending cuts have led to a drain of experienced staff, resulting in a very low staff morale and a reliance on agency workers.

We have entered both CSS and woodland planting schemes in the past two years; we have completed all our tasks and obligation but still await all payment.

Planting levels are now at their lowest level since 1971 and the UK ranks 25th out of the EU’s 28 states for woodland cover.

A government manifesto pledge in 2015 to plant 11 million trees between 2015 and 2020 has got off to a shaky start with fewer than two million achieved in the first two years.

Land managers continue to be put off by an application process more focused on procedures, compliance and processes than outcomes.

Woodland planting

A change in rules has also meant that BPS payments can no longer be claimed on land put into woodland planting schemes.

Whereas payments used to be made on achieving a certain take up of trees per ha, now a specific number of trees need to be planted and must all survive to attain payment.

At 1,000 trees per ha it is going to take RPA officers some time to check out a whole new woodland!

Environment secretary Michael Gove says support payments in future will be based on “environmental outcomes”, but he is going to need a vehicle to deliver this policy as well as the confidence of us to partake in his future aspirations.

Former Farmers Weekly Farmer of the Year Robert Law farms 1,200ha on the Hertfordshire/Cambridgeshire/Essex borders growing cereals, peas, forage rape for seed and sugar beet. He also manages 500ha of Nottinghamshire sandland.