Industry leaders have called for significant improvements to England’s new Countryside Stewardship Scheme (CSS) in response to concerns over farmer ‘disillusionment’ with it.
As the application window for the first CSS agreements, due to start in January 2016, closed on Wednesday (September 30), there were fears uptake would be well down on expectations.
While farmers appear to have been lukewarm towards the scheme across the country, there is particular anger in the uplands where farmers appear to have been denied a credible successor to the vital Uplands Entry Level Stewardship (UELS) scheme.
The transition to the CSS ‘Higher Tier’ for farmers coming out of Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) agreements appears to be relatively straightforward.
But the concern is over the 11,000 or so farmers coming out Entry Level Stewardship (ELS) agreements. For many their main option for continuing in agri-environment would be new CSS Mid Tier agreements.
Defra and Natural England had allocated £85 million to CSS in 2016 and were targeting around 4,000 new Mid Tier agreements in the first year of the £900m scheme.
By Monday, it is understood only around 1,000 applications had been submitted, although applications were coming all the time and the final number will be higher.
Industry leaders, while awaiting final numbers, have expressed concern over uptake and the knock-on effect this could have for farm incomes and environmental management on agricultural land.
Potential applicants appear to have been put off by a combination of lack of suitable options, particularly in the hills, some burdensome requirements, excessive bureaucracy and confusion up to the last minute over scheme rules.
NFU vice president Guy Smith said the NFU would wait until the final numbers were known before commenting fully.
He said: “The NFU remain committed to having as many farmers as possible in active agri-environment work.
“But, while it is early days, we are concerned a lot of people seem to be disillusioned with the new agri-environment structure and it is not getting enough interest.”
He said the NFU would seek changes to the scheme over the next 12 months if it was ‘just not attracting farmers’ and members wanted a ‘significantly different design’.
Country Land and Business Association (CLA) director of external affairs Shane Brennan said it appeared uptake in the new scheme would be ‘down by an order of magnitude’.
He blamed the ‘incredibly bureaucratic’ nature of the scheme, a concern he said the CLA had been raising with Defra and Natural England for some time.
He warned of the potential negative impact on environmental management around the country’ if participation in agri-environment schemes falls.
“Our focus now is how we can turn this around to ensure we have got a high level of participation going forward,” he said.
NFU uplands spokesman Robin Milton said there would be minimal uptake in the hills, with enormous financial implications for farmers and an inevitable shift in how land is managed.
He said: “There is real disappointment among farmers in the uplands. There is effectively no package for upland farming.
"They are going to reduce an income which is already below the minimum wage and tell the most disadvantaged areas ‘sorry, the environment is your responsibility’”.
Natural England said it would not comment until the final figures were in.
If the new Countryside Stewardship Scheme was not exactly what had been hoped for in the lowlands, in the uplands it is being described as something approaching a disaster.
Since 2010, many upland grassland farmers have relied on Uplands Entry Level Stewardship (UELS) to supplement incomes constantly under pressure, never more so than in the past 12 months.
UELS was the successor to a series of schemes, the most recent of which was the Hill Farm Allowance, which recognised the particular difficulties upland farmers face.
UELS differed from its predecessors in that it rewarded farmers for environmental management, such as maintenance of field margins and stone walls.
But, as many of the original five-year UELS agreements are now expiring, farmers are either unwilling or unable to access it successor - CSS.
Chloe Palmer, an independent farm and environment consultant from the Peak District, said many of her clients wanted to apply but simply could not make it work.
"I have had calls from a number of different farmers but not one of them has gone forward into the scheme. They are disappointed as they wanted to go in but we could simply not make it stack up," she said.
“Farmers are under pressure anyway with low lamb prices and this is just another whammy for them. This Agri-environment income has been really important for hill farmers and now the rug has been pulled form under their feet.
"A lot of them have made a huge effort in terms of maintaining habitats and now Defra has said it not interested in what they are doing,” she said.
She said some farmers, particularly the younger generation would respond by ‘re-seeding the grassland and trying to increase production to recoup some of that money’.
“My concern, from a conservation perspective, is we run the risk of losing some really nice grassland which has already been declining rapidly in recent years, as farmers see no reason to maintain them.”
NFU uplands spokesman Robin Milton said farmers with moorland who were coming out of HLS agreements were largely being catered for with Higher Tier CSS agreements.
But he said Defra had effectively ‘abandoned the grassland farming that goes with the upland’ by making the Mid Tier CSS so unattractive in the hills, in contrast to efforts being made to support hill farmers in Ireland and Scotland.
He said: It seems somewhat paradoxical that government should announce a 10 point rural growth plan whilst developing schemes that seem to actively disadvantage both upland and lowland grassland farmers.
"We are in danger of seeing more than 30 years worth of active environmental management compromised by wanting to get more for less under threat of disallowance."
While Mr Milton does not believe hill farmers will ‘abandon the environment’, he agreed there will be a tendency among some to re-seed grassland and seek to boost production to try and recoup lost income.
Under UELS farmers received £62/hectare for environmental measures, including hedgerow management.
Upland farmers have received an uplift to their 2015 BPS, worth around £30/ha, as Ministers took an active decision to 'move money uphill', partly in recognition that UELS was on its way out.
But, according to Mr Milton, this uplift will not compensate those who lose UELS payments. The net effect is that affected upland farmers will lose ’10-12 per cent’ more than other farmers under the reformed CAP, he said.
He gave an example of a 200ha Exmoor farmer who stands to his £14,500 UELS payment but cannot access CSS. He will gain £7,000 from the uplift but, overall will lose £7,500.
Ms Palmer cited examples of two upland farmers who stand to lose £9,000 and £19,000 UELS payments on ‘quite marginal land’.
There are various reasons why farmers particularly in the hills, have struggled to access CSS.
Lack of options: Under UELS hill farmers were paid for managing field margins and boundaries, including stone walls. These are not options under CSS.
The main Mid Tier CSS upland option is Permanent Grassland with Very Low Inputs but it only pays £16/ha.
There are other options available in the hills, such as field corner management and rough grazing options, as well as capital grants.
But Mr Milton said, without field boundary options, many upland farmers were struggling to reach the CSS minimum threshold of £1,000 per year over five years.
While lowland farmers have access to a farmed wildlife package this is not available in the hills. Natural England has indicated it is hoping to develop a package for the uplands but the timescale is unclear.
Added costs and burdens: Some options, such as the low inputs option, require soil sampling, which can cost around £20/ha, cancelling out a big chunk of the payment, and time-consuming.
Bureaucracy: The record-keeping requirements, including photographic proof of compliance, have been a big deterrent.
While some requirements have been relaxed in the run-up to the deadline, it has come too late for many.
One requirement that has caused some bemusement is the requirement for scheme holders to identify various grassland species for species rich grassland options. Even wildlife experts would struggle, let alone grassroots farmers, according to Mr Milton.
Confusion over rules: Some key rules, such as dual use and the definition of low input grassland have only recently been clarified, leaving farmers uncertain about what they are applying for.
If uptake is down on expectations, one of the questions that has been raised is what would happen to the money - £85m has been allocated this year.
It is understood Defra can roll over any unspent money for three years, after which time it would head back to Brussels.
More information about the Countryside Stewardship Scheme can be seen here on the Defra website
FG Insight's Q&A on CSS can be viewed here
Here is our story on some of the concerns raised about the scheme earlier this year
If you want to see what grants are available to you, including under the new CAP, give our Grant Checker a go