A lack of key information is set to hamper applications to the government’s new Countryside Stewardship Scheme – which is now just days away from opening.
With less than a week to go before Countryside Stewardship launches on 1 July, Defra has yet to publish the full terms and conditions for the scheme – leaving growers and livestock producers unable to make fully informed applications.
Devised as the replacement for Entry-Level and Higher-Level Stewardship, Countryside Stewardship aims to provide incentives for land managers to look after the environment. It is open to eligible farmers, woodland owners, foresters and other land managers in England.
A scheme manual containing information for potential applicants was published on 22 June – but it lacks any terms and conditions, which Defra said would be added later. “Details will be provided in a later update to this manual,” said the government website.
The government’s handling of the scheme has already come under fire. Even if full details are published imminently, Defra has given farmers just three months to apply during the busy harvest period before the scheme closes again on 30 September.
NFU policy director Andrew Clark said: “Until the terms and conditions are published, farmers don’t know what they are letting themselves in for. Our advice is that farmers shouldn’t formally enter the scheme until they know what they are committing to.”
Information about the scheme has emerged in dribs and drabs. Earlier this week, Farmers Weekly revealed that applicants will be expected to photograph hedges, trees, over-wintered stubble and other landscape features on their farms in return for payments.
Exmoor hill farmer Robin Milton described the scheme options as “extremely disappointing”. They appeared to be driven by the process of verification and needs of non-governmental organisations, rather than any environmental or farming concern, he said.
“Many verification requirements would not even stand up as suitable verification in court,” said Mr Milton. “Photos can be taken of any field and records can be falsified. This is a scheme that is at best suspicious of farmers… and at worst suggests that land managers cannot be trusted.”
A Defra spokesperson said, “We are working hard to ensure that farmers and land managers have the information they need to apply for the Countryside Stewardship Scheme.
“Full guidance was published earlier this month and we continue to work closely with stakeholders to finalise the terms and conditions of the scheme, which will be available from mid-July.”