Countryside Stewardship – last-minute application advice

Farmers in England have been grappling with the new Countryside Stewardship (CS) scheme ever since the handbook was published this summer.

Like its predecessor, the new scheme is split largely into two: mid-tier and higher tier. However, applying for a mid-tier payment is a competitive process, and if applications don’t achieve a high enough score they might not be selected by Natural England (NE).

Applicants can make proposals that work well for their farm business, but decisions about who benefits from the scheme will be made carefully, looking at the best options for local environmental priorities and, crucially, the total financial return from a wide range of options.

Look at what you already have

CS is about quality rather than quantity – take a close look at what you have already. Unlike the old Entry Level Stewardship (ELS) and Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) schemes, CS options are not whole-farm schemes, so you don’t need to include all fields in the application.

See also: What you need to know about the future of BPS

Example farm

A 100ha mainly arable farm includes some marginal land and unproductive grassland. Higher CS priorities for the area centre on water protection and farm wildlife.

The farm has:

1.25ha of field corners and edges taken out of production

A 2.25ha odd-shaped field that used to be set-aside and is now fallow

1.5ha of 6m buffer strips by a river running through the middle of the holding.

The farmer keeps the 6m buffer strips, attracting £353/ha in CS, assigns the unproductive grassland as low-input grassland at £95/ha and puts the fallow land, field corners and edges into winter bird food at £640/ha.

The total area in the agreement is 35ha, leaving the rest of the farm to meet greening rules for BPS.

The agreement also qualifies for the WPFWP. In this case, the mid-tier payment received is more than £3,000 – similar to the amount received by the farm under the ELS.

Greening and BPS

It is important to know how your CS application will interact with greening under the Basic Payment Scheme (BPS).

If you choose an option for CS that you are also going to use for greening, then the CS payment can be quite seriously reduced. Overlaps such as this are known as double funding and the level of reduction varies from option to option.

Different elements can be chosen for each scheme. Getting the balance right can be complex; however, it is possible to work out which options under BPS greening and CS give you the best value for money, while delivering the best environmental outcomes round your farm.

Apply now

There is a tight deadline for this year’s CS applications. In future it is likely to be even more competitive, with a greater number of applications, so anyone wanting to take full advantage should do so now.

Focus on land with the ­greatest environmental value to give you the best chance of being accepted while allowing more productive parts of the farm to be left out of the application. Choose sensibly, and it is possible to achieve similar payments as under previous schemes without making huge changes.

There are more than 200 environmental options under CS related to woodlands, wild birds, hedgerows and water features. You may already be doing more than enough, through either existing schemes or measures advocated by the Campaign for the Farmed Environment (CFE).

Areas of fallow, for example, offer good opportunities under CS; by sowing winter bird food or nectar flower mixes, you could be getting an annual £500-600/ha. With commodity prices at their current level, this is a good return on marginal plots of land that do not yield well. For grassland, less-productive fields can be sown with a ryegrass seed-set mix, getting £331/ha.

Environmental priorities

To help score applications, NE has split England into 159 designated environmental regions, which have been allocated different priorities.

Measures that count towards meeting priorities will score more highly.

In lowland arable areas, many priorities focus on protecting watercourses or encouraging ground-nesting birds, whereas in upland areas the priorities focus on protecting grassland, landscape features or options related to livestock management.

Further weighting is given to your score by having options endorsed by an NE adviser or catchment sensitive farming officer (CSFO).

Pollinator and wildlife packages

A key element of the scheme is the wild pollinator and farm wildlife package (WPFWP). This is a collection of measures, including options such as pollen and nectar mixes and wild bird seed mixes. There are three packages tailored towards grassland, mixed and arable farms.

To meet this specification in the mid-tier scheme, for example, you have to choose options that help provide winter bird food and nectar and pollen sources for 3% of the land in the agreement.

By choosing options under this package, your score will immediately be increased, making your chances of success better. Many of the options involved pay £350-£640/ha, so if there is unused or unproductive land, it could all be included as part of the package without requiring a lot of extra work.

What you need to know

CS offers grants to help farmers improve the environment and countryside.

It replaces the ELS and the HLS, the England Woodland Grant Scheme (EWGS) and capital grants under Catchment Sensitive Farming. Applicants can select from 240 management options and capital items to help improve their environment. Examples are nectar and pollen mixes, habitat creation, woodland and livestock management and water quality options.

Farmers with an ES agreement ending before 2016 are eligible to apply now, as are those with no agreement. Farmers with ES deals expiring in 2016 will be able to apply next year, with their CS agreements starting in 2017.

The scheme has three strands:

  • Higher tier – For farmers in environmentally sensitive or designated areas who may require more support.
  • Mid-tier – Open to all farmers, aiming to address environmental issues in the wider countryside, such as improving water quality, pollinators and landscape features.
  • A standalone tier – To support capital works.

Most farmers will be applying for mid-tier funding. Submissions must be made to NE by 30 September, with a start date of 1 January. Higher-level submissions should be sent in by 31 October.

The mid-tier process is competitive, with applications scored against environmental priorities for the local area.

Successful applicants have 20 days in which to accept or refuse an offer from NE. Payments are made in autumn every year.

Eligibility criteria are largely the same as ELS and HLS – although mid-tier agreements must have a minimum claim value of £1,000/year.

Farmers must have management control of the land for the full five-year term for which the scheme will run. Tenants whose term expires during this period need to have their application countersigned by their landlord. In addition, most tenancies will contain a clause requiring landlord’s consent for participation in environmental schemes.

The CS also differs from the ELS and the HLS because it is no longer a whole-farm application – applicants can choose which fields they want to enter. Previously farmers received a flat payment/ha, but now payments are awarded on each option.

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