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Countryside Stewardship issues and improvements, as told by the experts

We asked a team of experts what they felt needed to be improved in the Countryside Stewardship scheme.


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The initial roll out of Countryside Stewardship has been met with disappointment by the farming community with complaints of complexity, and the ‘chaos’ surrounding its introduction.

 

Application figures were significantly lower than expected.

 

Natural England received only 2,314 ‘mid-tier’ applications after budgeting for about 4,500.

 

Farmers felt ‘disillusioned’ by the entire scheme according to a survey by the NFU, and the union has called for the Government to urgently review the scheme’s implementation.

 

While Natural England announcing improvements to the Countryside Stewardship scheme, we asked industry experts their views on the scheme and where they feel improvements could be made.

 

 


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In light of the lower than expected uptake, what do you think were the main problems with Countryside Stewardship this year?

In light of the lower than expected uptake, what do you think were the main problems with Countryside Stewardship this year?

Application/IT issues

 

Farm and environment consultant, Chloe Palmer said: “The scheme application window was far too short for farmers to fully understand the scheme, decide whether to apply and then either to do the application or get an agent to do it for them.

 

"Many agents found they did not have time to help as many farmers as they would like to. It also coincided with harvest and drilling so entirely at odds with the farming calendar.”

 

Onerous rules/options

Thomas Lancaster, senior land use policy officer at the RSPB, said while there was always going to be a marked transition between Entry Level Stewardship (ELS) and Countryside Stewardship, what has made this year so difficult has been the failures of process and implementation.

He said: “Onerous record keeping requirements have proved a real issue. These problems have combined to create an impression of complexity that has turned many farmers off.”

 

In addition to this, the requirement to cut hedges every other year across all fields in an agreement is said to have put many farmers off the scheme. Ms Palmer added there is a very limited range of grassland options in the initial roll out, something which must be improved before this year’s roll out.

 

 

3

Complexity

CLA president, Ross Murray said: “The way the new scheme was introduced and the complexity of its requirements have put land managers, farmers and foresters off participating next year.

 

"The new inspection regime and verification is wholly unrealistic and unnecessary."

 

Ms Palmer added: “The Farm and Wildlife package is extremely complicated and confusing and put many farmers, especially arable holdings, off applying.”

 

Defra has indicated a willingness to work with stakeholders to improve it for next year. What changes do you think should be made to improve the scheme?

Ross Murray said the CLA is working with Defra to help them ensure next year’s scheme is much improved both in terms of being attractive for applicants and also delivering the best environmental benefits.

 

All experts agreed on the main points of improvement for next year, which included:

 

CLA

CLA
  • We would like to see the application window earlier in the year, allowing more time for land managers to consider how Countryside Stewardship fits with their BPS requirements. The NFU also commented on this issue saying the application window should fit in with the farming calendar.

  • This year’s scheme should better reflect the differences between agriculture and forestry. Under the current system smaller, managed woodlands are no longer eligible for support and this problem should be addressed in revisions to next year’s scheme.

 

RSPB

  • The IT was critical in making the mid-tier of the scheme intuitive to farmers. When this collapsed, it rendered the targeting and scoring much harder to interpret. Fixing the IT and developing a more transparent application process must be the top priority.

 

Chloe Palmer

Chloe Palmer
  • Give farmers the option of buying the printed manuals at cost as printing them off or reading off the screen is entirely impractical.

    Natural England could mass produce the manuals and then retail copies at £10 each or similar. The RSPB made similar comments on this topic.

 

NFU

  • The record keeping requirements need to be proportionate to the option and payments received. Chloe Palmer also commented on this, stating the need to soil sample should be removed.
  • Options need reviewing to make sure they are accessible to livestock farmers and practical to deliver on the ground.

 

All experts agreed the onus is now on Defra and Natural England to fix these problems for 2016.

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