Countryside Stewardship

Ponds at LoddingtonFollowing lengthy discussions around the development of a new agri-environment scheme in England, Defra announced in January that it would be called Countryside Stewardship. Despite the name, it is a very different scheme to the one that came to an end in 2004.

The new scheme opened to applicants in July 2015 with applications to be submitted by September 2015 and new schemes starting on 1 January 2016.

Countryside Stewardship will have three main elements:

  • Higher Tier (similar to the current Higher Level Stewardship (HLS))
  • Middle Tier (which will replace Entry Level Stewardship (ELS))
  • A lower tier of capital grants, including the Hedgerows and Boundaries Capital Grants

Unlike previous schemes, most elements of Countryside Stewardship are competitive, which means that not everyone who applies will be successful. Targeting and scoring approaches have been developed and are aimed at encouraging applicants to choose options that help achieve the identified environmental priorities in their local area.

The Higher Tier

It is expected that 90% of existing HLS agreement holders will be offered the opportunity to go forward to Countryside Stewardship as their agreements come to a close. Higher Tier agreements are usually ones that need complex management, such as habitat restoration, woodland creation or tailored measures for priority species such as grey partridge. As well as being the follow-on scheme for HLS, this is also where all the woodland creation and management schemes sit.

The application process will be similar to the HLS scheme and will be led by Natural England/Forestry Commission project officers. Applicants will need to contact Natural England or the Forestry Commission before they can apply.

If you are considering applying for a Higher Tier agreement you will be looking at deploying agreement options on 7-10% of farmable land, which is slightly higher than the ask in existing HLS agreements.

The Middle Tier

Wild flower field marginThis aims to address widespread environmental issues, such as reducing diffuse water pollution or improving the farmed environment for farmland birds and pollinators. As with the Higher Tier scheme, targeting and scoring will encourage applicants to choose options that help achieve the environmental priorities that are important in their wider area. The big difference from ELS is that the scheme is competitive and it does not pay a flat rate based on achieving a points threshold.

Successful applicants will be paid by options in place across the agreement. As entry into the scheme is competitive it will be difficult to give exact guidance as to what is required but deploying options on 3-5% of farmable land would be the type of approach required.

Both Middle and Higher Tier agreements will run for five years. Applications will need to be completed by the end of September and where the application is successful the agreement will start 1 January. As part of the process of helping to ensure Countryside Stewardship delivers for wildlife, Natural England has been working with a range of partners, including the GWCT, to develop the Wild Pollinator and Farm Wildlife Package. This package outlines a specific group of scheme options that benefits wild pollinators, farmland birds (including grey partridge, tree sparrow and yellowhammer) and other farm wildlife such as rare arable plants, great crested newts, bats and brown hare.

Together, these options provide the essential resources (especially year-round food, shelter and nesting places) that wild pollinators, birds and other farm wildlife need to survive and reproduce. Examples include sowing nectar flower and winter bird food mixes, increasing flower resources on grassland and on-field margins and managing hedgerows. Evidence suggests that applying the right combination of these options over at least 3% of the farmed land of a holding will bring meaningful changes and benefits to farm wildlife.

Choosing options from this package will improve the chances of the application being successful. When applying for Middle Tier applicants will be expected to use options from this package on 3-5% of their farmable area and in the Higher Tier this will increase to 5-10%.

Hedgerows and Boundaries Capital Grant

Flower margin and dry stone wallA new addition is the Hedgerows and Boundaries Capital Grant, which offers funding of up to a maximum of £5,000 per applicant for farmers and land managers who don’t have a Higher or Middle Tier agreement or a current ES agreement. These grants will mainly be for small-scale restoration of boundary features, like hedgerows and stone walls. Major restoration projects would be funded under the Higher Tier.

The final strand of the scheme to be covered here is the Countryside Stewardship facilitation fund, which was announced in March 2015. This fund is designed to support people and organisations that bring farmers, foresters and other land managers together to improve the local natural environment at a landscape scale. This landscape-scale approach can cover land under existing agri-environment and forestry/woodland agreements, common land and land not currently covered by a scheme. It builds on the principles of partnership working to deliver environmental benefits, as demonstrated by various initiatives, including GWCT farmer clusters and the farmer-led Nature Improvement Area. Where applicants are successful, funding will be in place for a full five years.

This approach is a great opportunity for farmers to work together across a landscape or catchment and deliver real environmental gain with the help of a trusted adviser. It’s worth considering how this might work for you and your neighbours and look to apply in 2016.

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