Agri-environmental schemes getting harder to sign up for

Farmers and land agents claim their desires to “go green” by embracing agri-environmental schemes are being thwarted by raised hurdles and suspected budget cuts.

In Scotland, even the winner of a prestigious environmental award has been barred from the country’s Rural Stewardship Scheme. And south of the border, specialists say joining the Higher Level Stewardship scheme has recently become much harder.

“Not long ago we were told that the HLS entry criteria were on the floor and it was a case of ‘roll up, roll up’,” said David Bolton of Norfolk land agent Cheffins.

 “As a result, a great deal of effort went into making applications. But now I’m being told by our consultants in touch with Rural Development Service advisers that the criteria have shot up.

“The more this sort of thing happens the more it brings these schemes into disrepute.”

Having worked closely with farmers to develop comprehensive, high quality HLS applications, the Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group is also finding it increasingly hard to gain acceptance.

“FWAG recognises that, as some regions near their budget limit, the threshold may increase,” said director Michael Woodhouse.

“But what has been difficult to fathom is that only a few months ago some regions actually dropped the threshold to seek increased numbers of applicants, only to find this being reversed down the line.”

He said cuts in agreement options could only be viewed as “a cost-cutting exercise”.

An overspend by DEFRA linked to problems at the Rural Payments Agency, preparations for avian flu and other computer problems are widely blamed.

North of the border, raised thresholds for Scotland’s Rural Stewardship Scheme highlight the need for an environmental support overhaul, says NFU Scotland.

With only 22% of this year’s RSS applicants successful and entry thresholds up 19%, NFUS president John Kinnaird describes the figures as “shocking”. “At a threshold of 62.5 points, the RSS is this year out of reach for many people.”

Among them is Aberdeenshire farmer Michael Johnston, a Farmcare/FWAG Silver Lapwing award winner in 2005.

“This is the second time we have been turned down for a Rural Stewardship Scheme, despite spending hundreds of pounds on the very best possible advice,” he said.

“The whole system is a complete failure. There are some 27,000 farms in Scotland. Of these, 2361 applied and only 524 were successful. How can the government seriously claim to have an agri-environmental policy when this is the result?”

Farmers Weekly Farmer Focus writer John Jeffrey, who farms near Kelso in the Borders, is equally disillusioned, having been turned down for the RSS again. “This is a competitive scheme. But by raising the bar from 52.5 points last year and 42 the previous year, they have effectively put everyone off trying to be environmentally friendly.

“It costs nearly 1000 to prepare your tender, and only 3.5% of competitive bids in our area were accepted. How can this scheme be fair? I will not waste my time if the scheme is rolled out again next year.”

HLS Budget Issues
  • DEFRA denies that the HLS budget has suffered as a result of the recent demand for it to trim its spending by 200m in six months.
  • “DEFRA and the RDS remain committed to delivery of environmental stewardship, both in terms of the wider Entry Level strand, open to all farmers, and to the Higher Level strand targeted at delivering high-value environmental benefits,” said a spokesman.
  • Recently announced Treasury objectives to make departmental savings had no impact on scheme budgets, she added. However the size of the budget for the next programme 2007-2013 remained under discussion within the EU.
  • In Scotland, a SEERAD spokesman insisted that the RSS budget had not been cut, but all available funding for agri-environment schemes in the 2000-2006 Scottish Rural Development Programme had been committed.
  • Land Management Contracts were planned as part of the 2007-2013 Scottish Rural Development Programme, he noted. “We await final confirmation on funding.”