The next round of Countryside Stewardship will open for applications on March 14, Natural England has announced.
Natural England has responded to criticism of the new £900 million English agri-environment scheme in 2015 by announcing a number of improvements.
This includes opening the 2016 application window for the Higher-tier and Mid-tiers of CSS earlier, and for longer, than in 2015 when the short summer window deterred some applicants.
The new window extends from March 14 until 30 September.
Other important dates for Countryside Stewardship application windows in 2016 are summarised in this timeline.
Another big criticism of the scheme in 2015 was the length and complexity of its guidance.
Natural England is promising ’new and improved guidance material’ from mid-March, including an online option selection tool to make it easier for applicants to choose the right high scoring options for their applications.
In another improvement, new hedgerow and boundary grant options worth up to £5,000 are currently open for applications.
The scheme did not attract the numbers of applicants Defra and Natural England were hoping for last year,
About 11,000 Entry Level Stewardship (ELS) agreements expired last year. But CSS attracted just 2,334 Mid-Tier applications in 2015, well short of the 6,000 or so Natural England and Defra had been hoping for.
In addition, 326 Higher Tier applications were submitted from 1,000 expressions of interest.
The NFU said farmers were ’disillusioned’ with the scheme, complaining about its of chaotic administration. As well as concern over the application window and guidance, farmers criticised the burdensome nature of some of the requirements, including excessive record-keeping, and the lack of grassland options, particularly in the uplands
A summary of concerns and suggested changes can be seen here here.
Natural England’s chief operating officer, Guy Thompson, said: “Taking on board the lessons learned from last year and the feedback we’ve received, we’ve made a number of improvements to Countryside Stewardship this year.
"Applicants will have more time to develop their agreements and better information to help them.
“We’re working to make it as simple as possible for farmers to apply, while still making sure this targeted scheme makes the biggest possible difference to our environment.”
At an NFU council meeting in January, Mr Thompson and Defra’s deputy director Mike Rowe insisted the overall scheme design was ‘fit-for-purpose’, given the demands of the EU regulatory framework, but acknowledged it had endured a ’wobbly start’.
Mr Thompson admitted the way it had been implemented had not been fit-for purpose and had been, at times, ‘downright poor’. As a result the scheme had not attracted the numbers initially hoped for, he said.
Council members branded the scheme an ’unmitigated disaster’ and an ’absolute disgrace’.