The new Countryside Stewardship Scheme (CSS) is on course to be a success, despite serious concerns among farmers about its value, particularly in the hills, according to Farming Minister George Eustice.
The deadline for mid-tier CSS applications closed last week, amid industry warnings applications would be well down on expectations as farmers in England found the scheme impossible to access or simply not worth joining.
Natural England has not yet revealed how many applications it has received.
But Mr Eustice said: “We have had good interest in this scheme, exactly where we expect it to be – thousands of applications and expressions of interest.”
Questioned on the issues affecting farmer confidence in CSS during an NFU fringe meeting at this week’s Conservative Party Conference, Mr Eustice denied it had been made more complicated than its predecessor, Entry Level Stewardship (ELS).
He blamed some of the additional CSS burdens, such as the requirement to submit ‘photos of invisible boundaries and headlands’, on European Commission auditing requirements, insisting the rules were necessary to include certain options in the scheme.
While around 11,000 farmers are set to come out of ELS agreements, Mr Eustice said CSS funding would be targeted at smaller numbers of farmers who could make the biggest difference to local environmental priorities, such as water quality or farmland birds.
He refuted claims under-pressure hill farmers, many of which have struggled to get into mid-tier CSS, had been disadvantaged by the scheme.
The decision to ’move money uphill’ in the form of higher Basic Payments for hill farmers would ’largely offset the average value of UELS agreements’ as they expired, he said, a claim hotly disputed by hill farm representatives.
Hill farmers could apply for mid- and higher-tier CSS agreements, Mr Eustice added, insisting there would be ’no white spaces’ devoid of stewardship.
But NFU vice president Guy Smith was unmoved by Mr Eustice’s assurances, claiming there was ‘huge disillusionment’ with the scheme among farmers and warning ‘thousands upon thousands’ could be forced out of stewardship.
He said: “We have done a survey and farmers really don’t like it. They think it is badly designed and badly launched and they don’t trust the small print.
“Our generation of farmers have recognised the need for better conservation stewardship but now suddenly thousands upon thousands are going to give it up.
“This is not about farmers walking away from Countryside stewardship. It is about Countryside Stewardship walking away from farmers.
He urged Mr Eustice to review the scheme to make it ’more farmer-friendly’ in future.
Despite his earlier comments, Mr Eustice said the scheme could be altered on a year-by-year basis promised Defra would ’learn lessons’ and ’tweak’ the scheme, if necessary.