Government told to sort out Countryside Stewardship mess

Years of valuable conservation work could be put at risk as many farmers reaching the end of agri-environment schemes are unable to start new agreements, three leading farming organisations have warned.

The NFU, Country Land and Business Association (CLA) and Tenant Farmers Association (TFA) are calling on government to make Countryside Stewardship fit for purpose and enable farmers to continue their good environmental delivery through stewardship schemes.

A backlog of farmers awaiting payments for environmental work, some up to nine months, is also unacceptable and needs to be sorted quickly, say farm leaders.

See also: Countryside Stewardship benefits ‘held back by bureaucracy’

In 2014, more than 70% of farmland in England was involved in environmental work through Entry Level Stewardship (ELS) and Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) schemes.

Over the past 20 years, under stewardship schemes farmers in England have planted or restored 30,000km of hedgerows, and created 37,000km of grass margins. This work is alongside producing affordable food for the nation.

The NFU said the vast majority of farmers wanted to renew their stewardship scheme agreements when their current arrangements ended.

Schemes ‘not realistic’

But deputy president Guy Smith said farmers have been telling the union they don’t see the current scheme as a realistic – the risks of falling foul of the rules is too high and Natural England are struggling to convert sufficient expiring HLS agreements into Higher Tier Countryside Stewardship.

Defra has promised that payments to farmers who have taken out Countryside Stewardship schemes will be honoured for the full term of their agreements after Brexit.

But Defra’s Health and Harmony consultation refers to a “hole” in new stewardship schemes between 2020-22, when no new schemes will be starting during this period.

Mr Smith said the government must give serious consideration to alternative approaches to securing continued delivery of agri-environmental schemes, including the continuation of ELS and HLS agreements.

“We need to make sure that stewardship is fit for the future,” he said.

Cashflow crisis

Meanwhile, poor administration has left farmers facing delays in receiving their 2017 Countryside Stewardship payments this year. Some have reported taking out bank loans to cover income foregone.

Mr Smith said: “It’s also totally unacceptable that farmers are being forced to wait for payments. How can you run a business when payments for work that’s been carried out aren’t made on time?” 

CLA president Tim Breitmeyer said: “I know just how passionate our members are about nurturing and enhancing our countryside. But it is critical that the government fulfils its contractual obligation of timely payment.”

TFA chief executive George Dunn called for “urgent, practical solutions” to allow Natural England the breathing space it needs to deal with its workload while it develops new, well-designed and well-run schemes for the post-Brexit era.