Opinion: Dealing with the RPA can test anyone’s patience

Here’s another yarn about grassland in agri-environment schemes. More than 40 years ago, a farmer I know got into conservation. He planted hedges, dug ponds, and looked after his species-rich grassland. He won awards and went into a stewardship scheme.

This year, his son asked me to do an application to the Countryside Stewardship (CS) scheme. Now, species-rich grassland must be on the gov.uk Magic mapping site to be eligible for CS, and must be approved by the Rural Payments Agency (RPA) to be included in an application.

About the author

Paul Cobb
Farmers Weekly Opinion writer
Paul Cobb is a Kent-based independent environmental land management adviser and a partner in FWAG (Farming & Wildlife Advisory Group) South East.
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I ring the RPA. After the seven “press button 1 for…” choices and all the messages about avian flu and so on, I get through to someone who, over 15 minutes, asks for a number I have just given and says I will be called back in 48 hours. A week later, I ring again.

This, and what follows over the next two months, will be familiar to anyone dealing with the RPA. Generally, the people you speak to are helpful, but the system seems guaranteed to kick any enquiry into the long grass, especially if there is a complication.

In this case, I know that two of the four species-rich fields are not on Magic. I contact Natural England (NE) to get them put on. I assess the fields by the deadline to put them on the map, and the helpful person at NE tells me the fields are now “on the system” and will be sent to the RPA the next week.

Another month goes by. I call the RPA again, to find an email addressed to me has gone to the farmer instead. I retrieve the email; it says two fields I have asked approval for are not on Magic (I already know this), but if they have been mapped, they may be on the database when the dataset is checked again.

A quick email to NE confirms the fields are in the pipeline to be processed by the RPA, which has reported to NE it is “working through it” (I like that phrase). Meanwhile, I wait. I won’t see the two fields appear by magic on Magic, because the public-facing website only adds these things later.

Once these fields are recognised by the RPA, like the claimant to some heredity title, I still need to get approval for all four fields to go into the application by a deadline now a month away. How ironic, for I am an approved approver – I had spent the day before looking at species-rich grassland for CS applications.

Will I be allowed to approve my own fields? Probably not, especially now I have written this. Approvals are contracted out, so I’ll wait for someone else to come from afar and pass judgement on these meadows, with their orchids and butterflies.

The time I and the three organisations involved will have spent on this is mind-boggling. It’s anyone’s guess how it will work in Environmental Land Management  when four fields like this are just a tiny fraction of all the “public goods” farmers should be paid for.

And the added value of getting the four fields approved as species-rich? A total of £447/year. Not to be sneezed at, perhaps, but hardly a proper reward for a farming family’s dedication to the countryside for more than 40 years. 

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