Countryside stewardship: What to consider before applying

Farmers should consider Countryside Stewardship (CS) carefully as there are options which can prove beneficial on a practical and financial level, as well as delivering for the environment.

George Hoyes, farm consultant with advisory firm Strutt & Parker, explains more about the area payments and capital grants on offer.

A well-structured mid-tier agreement can be a useful management tool to safeguard farm profitability, with 2020 being the final year of full Basic Payment Scheme and the new Environmental Land Management (ELM) scheme agreements not expected until at least 2024.

See also: Environmental Land Management scheme – What we know so far

It is also an opportunity to deliver improvements to farm infrastructure, boost biodiversity and reduce water pollution.

1. Wildlife offers vs mid-tier

The first question facing potential applicants is which element of the CS scheme – the simplified offers, mid-tier, higher-tier or capital items only – is most appropriate.

In 2018, the government introduced four simplified Wildlife Offers which are different packages of options depending on farm type: arable, lowland grazing, upland, and mixed farming.

These applications are the easiest to complete and can be completed online.

However, many people find it beneficial not to be restricted by the reduced number of options available in the Wildlife Offers, so they can tailor their agreement to their individual circumstances.

A full mid-tier application gives the flexibility to pick and choose from a list of 144 management and capital options.

2. Environmental management options

There are some excellent management options for more marginal land and awkward field corners, which are often the most environmentally productive areas.

Popular choices for environmental management options include AB1 (nectar flower mix – £511/ha), AB8 (flower-rich margins and plots – £539/ha) and AB9 (winter bird food – £640/ha).

An in-field option attracting attention among growers is a two-year sown legume fallow (AB15), which can be a useful part of a rotation aimed at controlling blackgrass and a good option where there are challenges growing traditional break crops.

The option is good for the environment as it provides a source of pollen and nectar for pollinators and provides invertebrate chick food for farmland birds.

It reduces risk compared with traditional break crops, attracting a payment of £522/ha regardless of the weather, pest and disease pressures, and market conditions – assuming all management prescriptions are carried out correctly.

Incorporating this option into the rotation can also have a beneficial effect on soil structure.

3. Capital grants

Including capital works in a mid-tier application is a way of significantly increasing the value of a CS agreement, enabling farmers to invest in measures which reduce water pollution and soil erosion.

Payments are available to help fund fencing (£4.90/m), hedgerow planting (£11.60/m) and flood management measures, such as the installation of leaky dams (£764.42 for each large dam).

In high-priority water quality areas – as shown on Magic maps – funds may also be available for concrete yard renewal (£27.14/sq m) and roofing over manure storage or sprayer wash-down areas (£62/sq m).

Farmers in a priority water catchment wanting to apply for capital items will require the support of a Catchment Sensitive Farming Officer (CSFO) to be considered for funding.

It is advisable to book an appointment with your local CSFO quickly, as officers can get very busy as the application deadline draws close.

There is no limit on the value of a mid-tier CS application if it includes a mix of capital and environmental management options.

4. Hedgerows and Boundaries

The Hedgerows and Boundaries Grant is popular as a standalone part of CS, offering funds to enable farmers to restore existing farm boundaries and hedgerows on their land. 

Farmers can make an application to this element of the scheme without committing to any other environmental management works. However, parts of the farm already covered by an existing mid-tier CS agreement cannot be included.

Popular options include hedgerow coppicing (£4/m) and gapping up (£9.50/m). The maximum grant available is £10,000.

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