How to replace lost ELS cash with Countryside Stewardship

Those looking to make up for lost ELS income could do so through a Countryside Stewardship mid tier agreement.

Much of what they are already doing on farm might help them qualify, say advisers. Suzie Horne asked Henry Barringer of Brown & Co about the scheme.

nectar flower mix

© Tim Scrivener

How is the new scheme different from the old one?

The main difference is that the new scheme is based not on collecting points up to a threshold as with ELS but on whether there are features or opportunities on your land which fit with the list of priorities for your area.

Also, the new scheme is competitive so only the applications which offer the best value for money will succeed.

It opens only once a year with agreements starting each 1 January and payments scheduled to be made in June and December.

See also: Natural England bid to woo farmers to Countryside Stewardship

Applications will often need more supporting evidence than for ELS, for example grassland options will need soil analyses and many options require photographs.

Is it a lot more work than preparing for ELS?

Essentially, yes. There are more than 800 pages of guidance, so it can appear daunting. Unlike ELS it is not farmer-friendly but underneath it all the scheme is not actually particularly complicated, it’s a question of getting through the paperwork.

There is the risk that you might not get in if there are better applications than yours, however all those which we applied for last year succeeded. With a wider application window and greater familiarity with the scheme, it is likely that many more will apply this year.

Is it really worth applying for a mid-tier agreement?

With commodity prices where they are, the returns from some of the options do make it worthwhile. Payment rates are based on income forgone but were set when commodity prices were higher so look attractive in the current climate (see panel for examples of farms with 2015 agreements).

For many it will be worth concentrating their efforts on biodiversity, water and historic environments, where aspects of their landscape or management will meet the options.

For many arable farms to qualify it will mean taking 3-5% of land out of crop production to put it into options such as fallow, wild bird or nectar mixes, but that will be the least productive land.

Options can be as simple as managing hedgerows between fields, maintenance of weatherproof traditional buildings (payment of £3.25/m2) or putting down food for farmland birds (the scheme pays £632/t towards farmland bird food).

Mixed farms with permanent pasture will often meet the prescribed stocking densities with their current stocking rates for the low input pasture option.

Local Environmental Risk Assessment for Pesticides (Leraps) margins next to watercourses automatically qualify as a mid tier option.

Anyone in a catchment sensitive priority area will have further options related to this and the scheme offers funding towards many capital improvements. For example up to 50% of the capital costs of sprayer wash down areas is available while one of the many livestock capital items available is funding of up £3,675 to relocate sheep dips and pens.

There are arable reversion options and those willing to take historic and archaeological features out of arable cultivation can be paid £425/ha to do so. However you need to be careful – if the same area has been entered as fallow to meet greening requirements, the payment drops to £91/ha.

Most of the main arable options are rotational, which is an improvement over ELS.

Example farms with 2015 mid-tier CS agreements

A 170ha mixed farm had to take 13ha of arable land out of production compared with 7.5ha under ELS. While ELS income on this farm was £5,200 a year, mid-tier CS income will be £9,000. The farm has also received £22,000 worth of capital grant through the scheme to roof its sprayer wash down area and put up stock fencing.

A 360ha arable farm had ELS income of £10,800 on 11.27ha taken out of production. The same farm will take out 16.54ha for a CS mid-tier income of £16,000.

What’s the first step?

Look at Natural England’s priorities list to see what the targets are for your area

Then drive round the farm to see what is already in place, including what can be transferred across from ELS.

Are there any other tips or pitfalls?

Successful applications will offer the best value for money but do not be tempted to overload your application – it may make it too costly. 

  • Income generated from a CS scheme must be at least £1,000/year.
  • Application packs take five days to arrive and have to be requested so prepare in good time.
  • Consult Natural England about historic features – this aspect of the scheme is often overlooked but can generate good money even on arable land which has features such as Roman villa remains.
  • If applying for historical feature options, a Historical Environment Farm Environment Record (Hefer) report will need to be ordered. The process has been improved for 2016 mid tier applications in that this will be automatically generated by NE when the application pack is requested.
  • This is NE’s record of features of historical interest on the land in question but will take 20 days to arrive. In 2015, this timescale was the reason some people did not manage to secure an agreement. 
  • In some areas, adopting the farm wildlife package gives a 20% better chance of getting in as the points are weighted in favour of this option.
  • Adopt water quality schemes where possible – these can score very highly if buffering water courses.
  • Some options are only compatible with certain fields – eg over-wintered stubbles can’t go in fields at risk of erosion.
© Tim Scrivener

© Tim Scrivener

Countryside Stewardship details

  • Replaces old Countryside Stewardship ELS and HLS agreements
  • Annual scheme – agreements start on 1 January each year
  • Once agreement is confirmed it offers a guaranteed annual payment for five years
  • Wide range of priority options listed for each Natural England region and  catchment
  • Mid tier and higher tier applications opened on 14 March for agreements to begin on 1 Jan 2017
  • Mid tier applications must be in by 30 September 2016
  • Higher tier applications must first submit expressions of intent (requires significant amount of work)  by 30 April 2016 for applications that include agri-environment options (with or without woodland support) and by 31 May 2016 for applications that include woodland support options only
  • Hedgerows and boundaries grant applications must be submitted by 30 April 2016
  • Mid-tier options headings (each is broken down into many sub-headings for different rates payable) include:
  • Arable, Boundaries, Grassland, Historic environment and landscape, Soil and water, Uplands, woodland and scrub, Wetlands, Organic, Organic conversion, Organic maintenance

Case study – Perrymarine Farms

Chris Perowne runs a mainly arable business based at South Creake near Fakenham, Norfolk.

He applied for the mid-tier arable scheme in 2015. The 210ha farm is in NE’s north-west Norfolk area, where biodiversity, water quality and historic environment are priority targets.

With the River Burn flowing through the farm, water quality options were seen as important contributors to the application. Risk areas were reviewed and addressed using the steps in the manual.

The intention had been to install a sprayer wash-down area and re-concrete yards under the capital items area of CSS, but the River Burn was not a target in 2015 so these options did not satisfy scheme requirements.

overwintered stubble

Overwintered stubble © Tim Scrivener

While Mr Perowne is glad of the improvements his agreement will make to biodiversity and other aspects of the farm, also for the income that will increase significantly from the £30/ha provided by ELS, he says that entering in the first year of the scheme was a daunting experience.

“It’s not a question of just flipping from ELS into CSS, it’s a lot more difficult to implement and it can throw up practical issues that you might not initially be aware of.”

Examples in Mr Perowne’s case include the fact that the contractor he uses a 30m sprayer but some of the areas created by the agreement will need smaller kit to spray them off. Also some of the mixes he will use must be broadcast which will be an additional cost.

Timings have also been an issue. “They (NE) originally told me that I would not have to do anything until after harvest this year but now they want the wild bird strips to be in by June which means extra work and losing some crop income.

“I think overall it’s a good scheme – for example I think the nectar mixes are a great idea and it will be interesting to see their effect.

“But it is can be too rigid – there could be some local interpretation. For example I have barn owls nesting in the lean-to of a traditional barn. Although I could put the barn into the traditional buildings maintenance option, I could not include the lean-to where the owls are actually nesting.”   

Mr Perowne believes that some of the issues he has experienced have been a result of the rushed introduction of the scheme, a short application window and not all of the guidance being ready when it was needed.

While he is confident the agreement will increase in value from the lost ELS income, he does not know exactly how much the agreement will be worth to him because some aspects have yet to be finalised.

“Little things keep changing – we still haven’t finalised the overwintered stubble area so that will mean another meeting with advisers. I originally put in three fields of overwintered stubble but they want it pulled back to two.”

CSS options chosen at Perrymarine Farms:

Biodiversity – wild pollinator and farm wildlife package

AB2 – Basic overwintered stubble

AB4 – Skylark plots

AB9 – Winter bird food

AB12 – Supplementary winter feeding for farmland birds

BE3 – Hedgerow management

GS2 – Permanent grassland with very low inputs

Water quality

SW3 – In-field grass strips

SW4 – 12-24m watercourse buffer strips on cultivated land

Traditional buildings

HS1 – Maintenance of weatherproof traditional farm buildings