Tips on how to apply for mid-tier Countryside Stewardship

Does your ELS agreement come to an end this year? If so, this summer may be the ideal time to apply for the new mid-tier Countryside Stewardship scheme, which will be available from next year, as Richard Allison explains.

© FLPA/Rex Shutterstock

© FLPA/Rex Shutterstock

More than 10,000 Entry Level Stewardship (ELS) agreements expire this year and farmers are being encouraged to start looking at the replacement Countryside Stewardship scheme.

Recent months have seen many farmers caught up in the difficulties of applying for the Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) and there are concerns this will overshadow next month’s launch of Countryside Stewardship, which replaces both ELS and HLS.

Mike Green, Natural England national arable specialist, says  many farmers have not heard of the scheme, which opens this year for applications on 1 July and closes 30 September. Those who are successful will start their agreements on 1 January 2016.

See also: Bees shy away from crop-facing hedgerows, finds study

Having just faced the extra paperwork and hassle with their BPS application, even those who are aware of Countryside Stewardship may be tempted to delay a year to see how it pans out.

But there is an opportunity to secure funding, particularly for those who already have the wildlife margins in place.

How does mid-tier Countryside Stewardship differ to ELS?

The amount of CAP funding allocated to the mid- and higher-tier schemes from 2015-20 is £925m, with the rest of the £3bn total budget covering the overhang of the existing ELS, HLS and woodland schemes.

Key points

  • Applications open on 1 July and the deadline is 30 September
  • All agreements will start on 1 January
  • Those with agreements that expire later in the year can also apply this summer
  • All eligible farmers can apply for the scheme, and there are steps you can take to increase your chances of success

This inevitably means money is limited, so applications will be scored and ranked, with some being unsuccessful, says Mr Green. But they can apply again the following year.

A key difference is that choosing the right mix of options, as well as the options themselves, will count towards an agreement – so rewarding effort that ELS could not.

“Effectively the more you do, the more you will get paid,” says Tom Lancaster, senior policy officer at the RSPB. “It’s more focused on outcomes.

“For example, on a 250ha holding, opting for the Wild Pollinator and Farm Wildlife Package package, adding in 1,500m of enhanced hedgerow management, 100 skylark plots and 1-2ha of buffer strips, your payment would be £9,500/year – well in excess of the £7,500 you’d get under ELS.”

Elizabeth Ranelagh, adviser with FWAG East and East Anglia co-ordinator for the Campaign for the Farmed Environment (CFE), adds that some of the easier options will no longer be available.

These include basic management of field corners (EF1), basic hedgerow (EF1 and EB2) and ditch management (EB6).

“However, those who have pheasant shoots, remember that wild bird mix is one of the options,” she says.

Who can apply?

“There are a lot of myths,” says Mr Lancaster. “One key myth is that it is only being targeted at certain areas. Although priorities will be identified for different areas, everywhere will be a priority for something.”

“Although not all applications will be successful, anyone can apply, and there are ways to improve your chances of success, regardless of where you are.”

And with many farmers possibly holding off, this year may be the ideal time to apply, he says.

How do you go about applying?

Mr Green advises farmers to start by visiting the www.gov.uk website and checking the Countryside Stewardship guidance home page and then the Statements of Priorities web page.

“You should be able to find the one for your area to see what the local priorities are to increase your chances,” he says.

“There is no point in putting a heavily water quality-based application if the water problem is a long way from your farm.”

Then go to the Countryside Stewardship Grants web page and pick your options using the finder tool.

The tool shows how much you will get paid for each of the options, and its code. “For the first time, there is also a 350-word advice summary on how to carry out the option, though it does not form part of the requirements.”

He advises farmers to read these, as they give a good guide and even suggest seed mixes. “Do your homework and become familiar with the various options.”

Next you will need to contact Natural England for an application pack. He stresses that any consents required to support an application may take several weeks, so it’s best not to leave it to the last minute.

Forms are then ranked and scored on the measures, including how they fit with regional priorities, and the higher value options in terms of wildlife benefits will generate a higher score.

“However, an easier and less stressful approach is to base your application around a mid-tier package,” says Mr Green.

How do I improve my chances of success?

Natural England, 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.

“Opting for the package increases your chances of having a successful application,” explains Mr Green. There are three versions and he 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.

“The emphasis is on providing the essential resources for wild pollinators and farmland birds with minimum disruption to the farm.”

For example, in the arable package, 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 per hectare of winter wheat.

“The package is an easy way to get closer to the top of the list and is the only bundle of options that will get a specific uplift in points.”

What should farmers who are deferring their application do with existing margins?

Farmers deferring for a year are urged to retain land that is protecting the environment on their farm, says CFE project officer Bethan Williams.

Features such as buffer strips have played a vital role in keeping crop protection products out of watercourses and retaining vital nutrients within the soil.

These areas benefit the wider environment and wildlife, yet already work and are established within the farm business.

“Retaining marginal land is not only a financial decision, but such land can also count towards the environmental focus areas as a third crop.”
Ms Ranelagh suggests farmers should think why they put these areas into margins in the first place.

“They tend to be unproductive, uneconomic areas of land that were only yielding, say, 6t/ha or less. It was a business decision not to crop.”

Cambridgeshire farmer Martin  Lines, agrees: “It is easier to farm not having to cultivate field corners, get tractors under trees and around ponds,” he says.

“I’m using ELS to make farming easier with increases in wildlife while being able to focus on the more productive field middles.”

He also believes he is seeing yield benefits from his crops, with more bees on the farm.

“Winter bean yields were 20% higher in fields nearer the enhanced flower margins compared with the field further away,” Mr Lines says. There are also crop quality benefits.

“Areas alongside woods tend to be green when harvesting, which affects quality,” he adds.

What practical advice is there for farmers looking to establish a wildlife margin?

For those looking to establish high-value margins for the first time, Mr Lines, advises starting by highlighting the difficult-to-farm areas and odd shapes, and then he drew straight lines down fields.

“I took out an even number of tramline widths with no overlaps and what was left was put in as margins. Also think about drill width. If you have a 6m drill, go for a 12m strip to make it easy to manage.

“Also think how you are going to get to the area to seed it in spring when the field crop has grown up. Maybe leave a tramline width along the field edge as a grass margin.”

In his HLS agreement, he opted for a range of features, including wild bird seed margins, enhanced flower strips and beetle banks.

Want to know more?

More information can be found at –

  • Countryside Stewardship – https://www.gov.uk/guidance/countryside-stewardship
  • Countryside Stewardship Statements of Priorities – www.gov.uk/government/collections/countryside-stewardship-statements-of-priorities
  • CFE – www.cfeonline.org.uk/home
  • Natural England – www.gov.uk/government/organisations/natural-england
  • Farm Wildlife – www.farmwildlife.info