Defra U-turn on Countryside Stewardship payments to benefit thousands

Farmers with Countryside Stewardship agreements starting on 1 January 2023 will now benefit from the 48% increase in payments for capital items announced by Defra farming minister Mark Spencer at the recent Oxford Farming Conference.

Originally, Defra had said the new rates would only apply from 5 January, which would have excluded several thousand farmers who had applied for grants last year as part of their new five- and 10-year Countryside Stewardship (CS) agreements for 2023.

But following concerted farmer lobbying, it has now been decided to push the date back by four days.

See also: CS agreement holders to miss out on additional capital payments?

“Changes to payment rates for capital items will now be applied to all CS and SFI [Sustainable Farming Incentive] pilot capital grant agreements, which began on and after 1 January 2023, in addition to all applications for capital offers that we receive from January 2023 onwards,” said a statement.

“This widens the number of customers eligible to receive the higher payment rates by nearly 5,000.”

The uplift in capital payments (for thigs such as hedge laying and farmyard improvements) will not apply to those whose agreements started before 2023.

However, the Defra statement makes clear that it will be possible to withdraw individual capital works from CS agreements which began in 2022 or earlier, or even to withdraw whole agreements, and reapply for them at the new higher rate – so long as the capital works have not actually started or materials been ordered. 

Payment ceiling

The move has been welcomed by farm groups. “It hasn’t fixed all the issues, but is a good step in the right direction,” said Nature Friendly Farming Network chairman Martin Lines on Twitter.

But the Tenant Farmers Association (TFA) is still challenging the £20,000 payment ceiling for standalone capital items targeted by the scheme.

“With an average increase in payment rates of 48%, this will have a knock-on effect to the amount of public goods that a farmer or land manager can deliver,” it said.

“The TFA is urging Defra and the Rural Payments Agency to review this payment ceiling, and other thresholds, to enable the sector to make a great contribution towards the government’s environmental targets.”