Defra and Natural England have pledged to make it easier and more attractive to apply to the government’s much-criticised Countryside Stewardship scheme.
Guidance will be simplified and made more farmer friendly, Natural England chief operating officer Guy Thompson told an NFU council meeting on Tuesday (19 January).
Starting next month, the application window would be opened earlier and for longer, he said.
Applications for hedgerow and boundary capital grants would be open from early February until 30 April, Mr Thompson told NFU leaders at Stoneleigh Park, Warwickshire.
The entire scheme would open on 1 March, with higher-level tier expressions of interest accepted the same month.
The move to sign up more farmers comes after it emerged that just 3,000 agreement offers have been issued since the flagship scheme was launched last year as a replacement for Entry-level and Higher-level Stewardship.
Some 800 pages of guidance notes – including requirements to keep photographic records of landscape features – were described by farmers as draconian and ridiculous.
Other farmers were unable to find time to apply because the scheme was open for applications only during harvest.
Mr Thompson admitted: “Countryside Stewardship got off to a wobbly start.”
But the fundamental design was fit for purpose, he added – even if delays in rolling out the scheme had been far from ideal for everybody involved.
NFU vice-president Guy Smith said it was no surprise that uptake of Countryside Stewardship had dropped off so significantly. “What they need to focus on now is improving the scheme and the NFU is committed to keeping the pressure on them to make sure this happens.”
Farmers needed to be confident they could enter the scheme without the risk of big penalties, said Mr Smith.
“It is far too easy to get the record-keeping wrong, resulting in draconian penalties. We want a pragmatic approach to record-keeping.
What do farmers think?
“Describing it as a traumatic rollercoaster would be a major understatement. The guidance kept changing and it wasn’t easy for us as a tenanted and mostly arable farm to apply during harvest. I still don’t fully understand the rules I am being asked to adhere to because of the constant changes.”
Ian Waller, Buckinghamshire
“The guidance is so unwieldy it is impossible. I tried to read it and nearly lost the will to live, which would have probably made Natural England very happy. But I refuse to be defeated by environmental schemes designed in an ivory tower with no connection to the ground.”
Richard Betton, Durham
“The retrofitting of livestock record-keeping is an absolute disgrace. For those of us who have been in the older schemes it engenders mistrust among the very partners who signed up to agreements. It is starting to look like environmental schemes are walking away from farmers.”
Thomas Binns, Lancashire