Things to consider before applying for agri-environment scheme

The fixed income from environmental schemes can prove especially valuable when grain prices are low, but farmers are being urged to make sure they fully understand what they are signing up to with the government’s new scheme.

There are many considerations such as the additional requirements for record-keeping, hedgecutting restrictions on land not in the scheme and getting consents in place. And there is the issue of “double funding”.

See also: Upland farmers secure better BPS deal

Farmers in England have until 30 September to apply for the mid-tier Countryside Stewardship scheme, which replaces the Entry Level Stewardship (ELS) scheme. There are more than 10,000 agreements coming to an end this year.

The timing is not good. “It is a horrendous time with farmers busy with harvest and there is a lot of information to get a grasp of,” says NFU countryside adviser Claire Robinson.

“However, my advice is to invest time in reading the details and understand what you are signing up to. Think about how the options will work on your farm and with existing margins.”

Strutt and Parker farming consultant Ali Gray believes the low wheat and oilseed rape prices will tempt some farmers to apply this time around, as it offers a regular income.

“It helps with managing risk by having a fixed income and not being so dependent on commodity prices.”

Timetable for first round

  • 1 July Scheme opens for applications
  • 30 September Closing date for applications
  • October Agreements scored, ranked and selected
  • October to November Agreements offered to applicants
  • 15 December Signed agreements need to be returned
  • 1 January 2016 All schemes start

But with regular cashflow being an important element for many arable businesses, he points out the potential gap in payments for those who have ELS agreements coming to an end this year.

If you apply this year and successfully secure an agreement, the first payment won’t be made until autumn 2016. Some may decide to wait a year before applying, but this means the first payment will not be until autumn 2017.

“This is quite a gap in payment,” says Mr Gray.

Adas agri-environment consultant Fiona Tweedie highlights that one common misconception is that those with agreements expiring later this year can’t apply. But that is not the case, as there is a single start date, unlike ELS.

“Those with agreements expiring up to 31 December 2015 can apply in this window as they won’t be in an agreement come 1 January 2016 when the new agreements start. So you need to apply if you want to avoid having an agreement gap.”

What should farmers consider?

Another key difference from ELS is that Countryside Stewardship is a competitive scheme, with applications scored against each other. Only the best applications will be offered an agreement.

“Everyone is able to apply, but they need to look at what the priorities are for their local area and then look at the options and see how they fit in with their business needs,” Ms Robinson says.

To find out what the priorities are in your area, go to the web page listing all 159 regional Statements of Priority documents. Open the one covering your area and it will outline the environmental priorities.

The manual says “applicants are advised to select at least one top priority and choosing other priorities will improve an application’s score.”

For example, Ms Tweedie says if you are in a priority catchment which has a problem with phosphate loading of water, going for options that reduce the movement of soil and sediment from fields will strengthen your application.

Then, armed with the priorities, farmers can go to the list of options (www.gov.uk/countryside-stewardship-grants) and use the keyword search function to find the options relating to that priority.

Steps to apply

Each option page has a lot of information, including how much will be paid, how to apply, how it will benefit the environment, any additional record-keeping, what must not be done, plus advice on carrying out the action successfully.

Alternatively, Mrs Tweedie says the manual on the Gov.uk website also has a really useful section called “Selecting the best management options and capital items” which identifies options that address water quality and biodiversity issues. These tables simply show the type of options that can be used to address each priority.

For the phosphate example, there is the 4-6m buffer strip on cultivated land aimed at reducing phosphate or nitrogen leaching into rivers and if you choose this option, your application will score highly. Failing to choose priority options means you may not score at all, she explains.

Her other tip is to select options that can do two or more things. “If you select one option that not only helps water quality, but also offers species gains or delivers a priority habitat, it will score highly because it tackles multiple objectives.”

However, if your farm is in a lower-priority area, Ms Robinson advises picking the Wild Pollinator and Farm Wildlife Package (see “Options to boost wildlife numbers”, below).

“Farmers will be familiar with this, as it is based on the old bird package under ELS. It is a useful way to boost points in lowland areas.”

But it is not just about points, warns Ms Tweedie.

“There is also a value-for-money consideration when applications are assessed. The basic score plus uplifts will be divided by the cost, so don’t just go for the higher-paying options if they are not in the right place or meeting the right objectives.”

Potential rewards

Some options in the new scheme can pay better than in ELS, for those farmers willing to take on the extra recording and effort. An example is the AB1 Nectar option, which returned a maximum of £450/ha under ELS, while in Countryside Stewardship it is higher at £511/ha.

Several other options also offer higher rates, but Ms Robinson questions the value of skylark plots at £9/plot.

“You have to question if it is worth the extra effort of taking photos and recording. This is one example of how the new system seems more about recording than the outcomes.”

One factor that may put some farmers off is that combined with the environmental focus areas (EFAs) under the Basic Payment Scheme, it may mean taking up to 10% of the area out of production.

Mr Gray believes one way to minimise the area lost is to grow pulses such as field beans and using this along with hedgerows to make up the 5% EFA and then make full use of the margins in a stewardship scheme.

This is because using margins entered in Countryside Stewardship to count towards your EFA will reduce the payment you will receive because of the “double funding” issue. This is where under EU rules, farmers cannot be paid twice for the same activity.

Mr Gray says there are 19 double-funded options and a quick calculation suggests these options pay an average 76% less than fully-funded options (£478 v £122/ha or plot).

Record-keeping requirements

There has always been a requirement for recording in ELS, but new to Countryside Stewardship is that you no longer get points for the farm environment records. This includes producing a map of the whole holding showing where the main features, such as ditches and ponds, are.

“It is now an assumed requirement and also part of the application process,” says Ms Robinson.

Some options also have additional recording requirements and Ms Robinson advises farmers go through the options and read the recording rules.

“This will help you avoid being caught out and left with onerous record-keeping. One example is with the Skylark plot option, where farmers are required to submit a picture of each plot every year.”

Some options also need recording as part of the application, such as taking pictures before the work is carried out.

“Making a Countryside Stewardship application is not as straightforward as ELS, with some supplementary information needed,” says Ms Robinson.

For example, for the hedge-laying option, farmers need to send with their application:

  • Photographs of each length of hedge entered
  • A justification for including the item, including why the item is necessary and how it meets the eligibility requirements
  • A map showing the location of existing hedgerow trees in each length of hedge
Wetland on farm

© Tim Scrivener

Other considerations

Crops already in the ground at the start of the agreement can be managed and harvested as normal farm crops. Some, however, may be subject to restrictions on their management from 1 January, for instance where the agreement requires that they must not receive any fertiliser, pesticide sprays or other inputs.

Another possible issue is the restrictions on hedge management, with other rules that apply to the farm such as do not cut more than 50% of hedges in one year.

Ms Robinson urges farmer to allow plenty of time to get the consents in place before applying, such as landlord permission, Internal Drainage Board consents for any ditch work or approval from Natural England if in a Site of Special Scientific Interest. “Applications no longer automatically confer consents when approved.”

One area still requiring clarity relates to mixed land and fields with pasture down for five years and then ploughed up as part of the rotation.

“It is not clear if this becomes eligible for arable options when ploughed out in, say, year three or four of the agreement.”

How to boost points

Natural England will be looking at both the amount and type of options to generate the points. However, Ms Robinson says there are three ways to boost your points, although only one of these will be available for most applicants.

First, there is the facilitator funds, where groups of farmers can get together and there is a payment for the facilitator to work with the farmers with the aim of getting gains over wider area than just one farm.

“There is a minimum of 2,000ha and four farms. However, this has now closed, but farmers can consider going for this next spring.”

The second is through Catchment Sensitive Farming with endorsement from your CSF officer. The final way is to include the Wild Pollinator and Farm Wildlife Package (see table, p8).

At the time of writing, Defra had not published the full terms and conditions for the scheme, leaving growers unable to make fully informed applications.


Field margin

© Tim Scrivener

Options to boost wildlife numbers

Natural England, the RSPB and other stakeholders have put together a Wild Pollinator and Farm Wildlife Package based on the successful Farmland Bird Package in HLS.

It offers a points uplift to your score if you meet the minimum 3% of total farmed area (both arable and grassland) requirement in mid-tier or 5% in higher-tier.

The package is a specific group of management options that benefit wild pollinators, farmland birds (including grey partridge, tree sparrow and yellowhammer) and other farm wildlife such as rare arable plants, great crested newts, bats and brown hare.

These options provide the essential resources (especially year-round food, shelter and nesting places) that wild pollinators, birds and other farm wildlife need to survive and reproduce. Examples include sowing nectar flower and winter bird food mixes, increasing flower resources on grassland and field margins and managing hedgerows.

The manual says: “Evidence suggests that applying the right combination of these options over at least 3% of the farmed land of a holding will bring meaningful benefits to farm wildlife.”

There are three versions and Natural England advises farmers to select the one that matches their main farm type – either arable, pasture-based (for mainly livestock farms) and a hybrid option for mixed enterprises.

For example, in the mid-tier arable package (see table, p8), the minimum is 1ha for every 100ha farmed to comprise one or more of the five options providing nectar and pollen sources. In addition, 2ha for every 100ha should comprise one or more of three options providing winter food for seed-eating birds.

While not all options are compulsory, selecting them will generate even more points, such as 500m hedgerow and two skylark plots a hectare of winter wheat.

Wild pollinator and farm wildlife package

Resources for wild pollinators and farm wildlife

Select one or more of the following options from each essential resource

Minimum quantity required

per 100ha of application land

Maximum quantity required

per 100ha of application land

(1) Nectar and pollen sources for insect pollinators and insect-rich foraging for birds

AB1 Nectar flower mix

AB8 Flower-rich margins and plots

AB15 Two-year sown legume fallow

AB16 Autumn sown Bumblebird mix

AB11 Cultivated areas for arable plants (no more than 25% of the total resource area)

1ha in total

3ha in total

(2) Winter food for seed-eating birds

AB9 Winter bird food (or OP2 Wild bird seed mixture)

Can also select up to 7.5ha per 100 ha of AB6 Enhanced Overwinter Stubble or up to 15ha per 100 ha of AB2 Basic Overwinter Stubble (or OP1 Overwintered stubble)

2ha*

3ha*

Additional resources

Select one or more options as appropriate

   

Hedgerows

BE3 Management of hedgerows

500m

2,000m

In-field breeding habitats for skylarks in winter cereal-dominated landscapes

AB4 Skylark plots

2/ha of winter wheat

2/ha of winter wheat

Ponds and ditches

WT2 Buffering in-field ponds and ditches on arable land

as required

as required

* larger if using stubbles