Farmers feel they have been left in the dark about when they can expect to receive their agri-environment scheme payments, with ongoing delays leading to budgeting problems and growing resentment about the way the schemes are being managed.
There is frustration among farmers who have signed up to Countryside Stewardship, or still have an old Higher-Level or Entry-Level Stewardship agreement, because many are yet to receive the first tranche of their 2017 payments.
Natural England announced in the autumn that it would increase first tranche payments, traditionally paid in the autumn, from 50% to 75%, with the remaining 25% following later, reflecting any payment reductions or penalties.
But according to farm leaders, many claimants are still waiting for that first payment, with some now being forced to take out bank loans because of their resulting cashflow difficulties.
It comes at a time when government is keen to promote schemes which pay farmers for environmental enhancement – as an alternative to existing farm subsidies.
Guy Smith, NFU vice-president, said the union had initially welcomed the announcement about the increase in payments from 50% to 75%.
But he added: “As a member recently pointed out to me, there’s not much difference between 50% and 75% of nothing.
“To make this endless delay in payments all the more disgraceful, it is for work done, leaving farmers indefinitely out of pocket.
“Going forward, if Defra are to inspire any confidence in these schemes they must at least get payments out to a clear understood timescale.”
A major problem is that while Natural England has promised to make the payments in two tranches, it has made no commitment on the timing of payments in any of its guidance notes or paperwork.
Mr Smith said farmers had been left feeling like it was one rule for them and another for government.
“As another member has pointed out to me, it feels that if you’ve got a blade of grass out of place then Natural England will come down on you like a tonne of bricks, yet when they forget to pay you then you are expected to like it or lump it.”
Call for clarity
Max Sealy, NFU county delegate for Wiltshire and a consultant with the Farm Consultancy Group, said some farms were waiting for substantial sums of money for work which they had already completed.
“What we need is clarity on the situation and better communication,” he said.
A Natural England spokesperson declined to clarify how many payments were still outstanding and when farmers could expect to see them.
“We are working hard to make both advance and final payments for 2017, adding staff resource and improving processes as far as we can to process payments as quickly as possible,” a statement said.
“We’ve worked to simplify Countryside Stewardship as far as possible within the current EU framework. Farmers will find the wildlife offers introduced for the 2018 application window are easier to apply for and therefore will be simpler for Natural England to process and deliver.”
Case study: Chris Parker, Leicestershire
Chris Parker says he is mystified why Natural England can’t at least pay him an advance on his mid-tier Countryside Stewardship agreement.
The agreement has a 1 January 2017 start date and he was hoping that the first payment (75%) would arrive in October.
Officials have told him that the delays are because his claim needs to go through “greening abatement crosschecks” to avoid double-funding problems, and they are still waiting for guidelines on how this will be carried out.
“However this is the second year of CSS, so they must have gone through this before,” he said. “If there is some penalty [as a result of the checks], then why can’t they knock that off the second tranche payment?”
Mr Parker, who runs a 365ha mixed farm close to Market Harborough, said he had always been a keen advocate of agri-environment schemes, having previously been in the original Countryside Stewardship and Higher-Level schemes.
“But this inability to process claims and pay people – it exasperates people even like me. So how on earth are they going to re-establish their credibility to get buy-in from more farmers?”