The Countryside Stewardship Scheme: the message from farmers is loud and clear

This blog post originally appeared on Peter's 'Fresh from the Field' blog on 5th November 2015.

The National Farmers Union, following a survey of 646 randomly selected members, has put out a press statement which says that farmers and growers questioned, state that the new agri-environment scheme (The Countryside Stewardship Scheme) is too complex to take part in.

Countryside Stewardship Scheme

The survey confirms much of what I am discovering when I talk to farmers. Interestingly, I do not find that much fault with the scheme itself. Yes, it is a lot more targeted and those applying are strongly guided towards specific options and told how much of each option they should ideally be doing.

However, the reason behind this more “bossy” approach is backed by research, as scheme designers now have information to show how much of an option is needed to really make a difference to the wildlife that it is targeting. So, put simply, if this tactic means that wildlife, soil and water will benefit in the long term and this is explained to farmers, they too see then see the sense behind this more rigid approach.

But, and it is a big BUT!

You will see from the below results of this NFU survey, that farmers are raising issues over the arduous application process, which is bureaucratic and over-complicated, poor information as to how the scheme rests with other schemes such as the Governments own “Greening programme” and finally, the associated risks to an individual farmer should he or she be inspected by the Rural Payments Agency (RPA) and are found to be in breach of one of the myriad of small print regulations that run alongside the scheme.

The answer to the last point is a fine, which is sometimes large.

Do not misunderstand me here. Of course farmers should be inspected, as this is public money we are talking about here, but if you make the small print so utterly complicated that an inspection is almost bound to fail in some way and result in a fine, then you can begin to understand why farmers have started to wonder if it really is all worthwhile.

Therefore my message is clear. Do not attack the scheme itself, but instead take a very large pair of secateurs to the red tape madness that surrounds it.

NFU press release

"The NFU is now urging the Government to undertake an urgent review of the scheme’s implementation and to introduce a raft of changes in order to make it more accessible to the industry.

NFU Vice President Guy Smith said: “This scheme is an important tool in enabling farmers to continue to maintain and enhance biodiversity, water, soils and to address future challenges such as climate change and we are very clear - farmers must to be able to continue the very good work that has been achieved in agri-environment schemes.

“However, final application numbers for the scheme have confirmed the poor uptake that we had feared. This is bitterly disappointing especially as we do not believe it is due to lack of interest or engagement from farmers – our survey shows that 93% were aware of the scheme and that 42% looked at it in detail. The new scheme is simply just too complex for many.

“The key issues have included last minute guidance changes and decisions on critical matters such as dual use, poorly drafted guidance and options, burdensome record keeping requirements and a narrow application window during the busiest time in the farming calendar.

“Sadly, we are seeing an increasing amount of disillusionment among our members. The key priority now must be to make the new scheme more accessible than it is currently, particularly for mid-tier applicants, and any changes enabled quickly to give much needed certainty to any prospective applicants.

“Despite the initial problems, the NFU remains committed to working with Defra and Natural England on the scheme’s continued development and implementation and we would like to play an active and positive part in any review.

“Farmers have always been very passionate about their participation in agri-environment and the benefits that these schemes bring to our countryside and we would very much like their involvement and enthusiasm to continue.”

The main findings

  • There was a high awareness (93%) of the Countryside Stewardship Scheme but issues with scheme design, the guidance and the application process have deterred members from applying
  • Guidance is not user friendly and is insufficient for making decisions and members are considering paying for professional advice (74%)
  • Payments are too low compared to what’s being asked for and the associated risks (48% said that joining the scheme would not be worthwhile for their business)
  • It is over complicated, bureaucratic and too prescriptive
  • Small farmers and upland farmers are at a disadvantage.

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at 10:03 on 12/11/2015 by Sue Everett

Hi Peter, I know how important it is for farmers and other landowners/managers to have professional support when going into agri environment schemes. Natural England staff have an impossible job trying to engineer CS without farmers having that independent support, which was originally part-funded under HLS. It was mad to dump basically a very big job, previously done by ecologists/agents acting for the applicant, on to NE staff then leave the rest of the work down to unsupported farmers/landowners. Extension type support to farmers is absolubtely vital and there is not enough of it available. Sue

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