Frustrated farmers kept waiting for stewardship payments

Frustration is mounting among farmers who have been kept waiting for their first Countryside Stewardship payment, the NFU has said.

Natural England had pledged to make advance payments to 2016 mid-tier and higher-tier scheme holders between November 2016 and January 2017, with final payments due between January and June 2017.

However, the NFU said exasperated members were calling the union demanding to know why their payments had not arrived.

See also: Call for clarity on Countryside Stewardship applications

Farmers Weekly understands that ongoing delays in processing payments are because of problems with IT systems and processes at Defra.

A spokeswoman for Natural England declined to comment on the number of 2016 scheme payments already made.

She said: “Countryside Stewardship payments are well under way. We know how important these payments are for farmers and that’s why we are working hard to process the remaining cases as soon as possible.”

Meanwhile, hundreds of farmers who applied for agreements starting in January 2017 are still waiting to hear if their applications have been successful. The agreements were supposed to start on 1 January.

The NFU said the delays were causing farmers difficulties in allocating resource. It is advising its members not to spend money on anticipated practical measures for 2017 schemes, such as hedge-laying or buying seed, until they have spoken to Natural England.

Cashflow dilemma

NFU vice-president Guy Smith said: “Defra and their agency (Natural England) must be aware of the problems this causes farmers on the ground when they try to manage cashflows.

“To be promised a payment by a certain date and then for it not to arrive creates chaos with farm cashflows and causes real hardship. We are hearing from a lot of rightly exasperated members.”

He added: “We are also hearing of frustration from members who think they have CS agreements which started on 1 January 2017 but they have yet to see the final paperwork.

“Natural England are clearly suffering continuing IT problems which need resolving sooner rather than later. We need to see some real progress and we need to see it soon.”

Natural England received 3,770 mid-tier applications and 954 applications for higher-tier Countryside Stewardship in 2016. But the agency has declined to offer details on the number of agreements that will be offered.