Confirmation thousands of farmers will exit environmental stewardship schemes next year has prompted further calls for a radical overhaul of the Countryside Stewardship Scheme (CSS).
Natural England revealed on Monday it had only received 2,314 applications for new CSS mid-tier agreements by last week’s deadline. This will translate into fewer final agreements once applications have been processed in what is a competitive scheme.
With about 11,000 farmers exiting Entry Level Stewardship agreements this year, Natural England had been budgeting for around 4,500 new mid-tier agreements, commencing in January 2016.
Addressing the NFU council in Warwickshire, on Tuesday, Mark Pope, the NFU’s Environment Forum chairman, said the poor uptake was ‘no surprise, given how poorly’ the scheme was designed.
He cited ’not-fit-for-purpose IT’, burdensome rules, a badly timed application window and a lack of suitable options, particularly for grassland farmers, as the among the reasons why the scheme had proved so unattractive to farmers.
Mr Pope said: "There is huge disillusionment with the new scheme. I am hearing about it across all sectors but notably grassland and uplands - they are at a huge disadvantage."
He said the scheme in its current form ’isn’t good enough’ and that pressure would be put on Defra and Natural England to make it more accessible next year.
"We are really clear we want this to continue and we are going to be looking at the current scheme to see how we can make it considerably better so so more farmers can apply for it," he said.
Durham farmer Richard Betton described the scheme as a ‘bureaucratic nightmare’. Its strict requirements mean farmers who go into risk losing, not only their CSS payment but their BPS too, if they fall foul of the rules, he said.
He said: “The scheme is totally unfit for purpose. Anybody on grassland would need to be certified to go into it. It is an absolute disgrace we have got to this position.”
He warned the exodus of farmers from stewardship could ’destroy the environment’ and suggested could be replaced with a universal capital grant scheme available to everybody.
Lancashire farmer Thomas Binns branded CSS ’no way fit for purpose’.
He said: "We seem to have arrived at a point where we have very complicated unattractive mid-teir scheme that has been developed, not through pursuit of the right the policy but through process.
"We have seen the same with the distribution of the EU milk package - it is the end result that has to drive the policy but it is often driven by process.
Sussex farmer Frank Langrish said Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) was proving equally unpalatable for farmers planning to transfer from expiring HLS agreements.
He said farmers in HLS agreements who had been reliant on that income were seeing replacement higher-tier CSS agreements worth a third or a half of their old agreements.
"Again it is grassland farmers who have been hung out to dry. It is also the record-keeping that will stop people from entering," he said, citing one farmer who estimated he would be required to submit 65,000 pieces of evidence under his CSS higher-tier agreement,
Yet despite the shortfall in applications and the frustration among farmers, a Natural England spokesperson said the agency was ‘pleased with the quantity and quality of applications received’.
That echoed comments made by Farming Minister George Eustice last week when he maintained all was going according to plan with CSS.
But NFU vice-president Guy Smith said the figures released this week confirmed warnings farmers were ‘disillusioned’ with the scheme.
Mr Smith said: "Farmers don't like it. The aim of the NFU is to ensure as many farmers are in agri-environment schemes as possible – that is going to require a substantial re-think to make this scheme more farmer-friendly."
He criticised Natural England's reaction to the figures: “How can Natural England be pleased when it was hoping for 4,000 to 5,000 applications? I am fed up with people being in denial about what the figures show.”
The CLA has warned the natural environment and wildlife would ‘pay the price for the failure of the scheme’.
CLA president Henry Robinson said the ‘chaos of the new scheme’s introduction and the complexity of its requirements have put land managers off participating next year’.
More than 25,000 farmers in England should start receiving delayed agri-environment payments worth £70 million next week.
However, while this represents 53 per cent of Entry Level Stewardship (ELS) and Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) claimants, there is concern about continuing delays for the remaining 47,000 farmers, some of which will have to wait until December for their money.
Payments are already months late due to delays in the cross-checking process between the Rural Payments Agency (RPA) and Natural England.
This week, Natural England said it passed on the relevant information to the RPA, enabling it to start delivering the first payments into farmers’ bank accounts by next Monday or Tuesday, according to agency chief executive Mark Grimshaw.
A total of 25,521 applicants should now receive their initial 50 per cent payments this month. The intention is for most of the remaining 47 per cent of initial payments to be made in November and all ‘payable claims’ to be paid ‘by Christmas’.
Appearing before the NFU council, Mr Grimshaw revealed the 47 per cent who faced a longer wait were mainly those who had been inspected.
NFU council members expressed concerns at the length of time information from inspections appeared to be taking to get into the system.
Mr Grimshaw hinted at tensions between agencies when questioned further on the delays, suggesting this should be answered by his equivalent at Natural England.
A Natural England spokesman acknowledged the frustration at the delay, but said staff had been working ‘seven days-a-week to get ready for this process’.
The spokesman said: “Within 24 hours of getting the data from RPA, we have turned it around.”
NFU vice-president Guy Smith said: "It will be welcome news for the 53 per cent who will start to see this money next week but when you consider these payments are for income already forgone and that it could have been paid from August and that Defra have turned down the option to pay 85 per cent then it's difficult to be positive about this.
"When you hear news that half of us will be paid half the amount outstanding you tend to conclude that the glass isn't a quarter full, it's three quarters empty. We call on Defra to get all this money out as soon as possible.
"It is £400 million that's owing to farmers, many if whom are experiencing cash flow problems."
Mr Grimshaw said the 85 per cent up-front payment would have delayed payments further.