Environmental stewardship is being jeopardised by tightening rules, non-payment issues and policy turbulence following the EU referendum, farmers have said.
Some grassland farmers have withdrawn from stewardship due to Natural England ’asking the impossible’, while reported non-payment of Countryside Stewardship (CS) grants is fostering distrust.
Natural England is reviewing its funding policy for CS, which is financed through the Common Agricultural Policy, following the referendum.
For now it has closed the doors to new applicants, but farmers say these restrictions are being applied to claims under live CS agreements.
One farm consultant told Farmers Guardian: “Farmers who have large invoices to pay for walling, hedge planting and laying and other capital items which they have recently submitted claims for are not being paid.
“When I contacted Natural England recently, I was given the current situation following the referendum as the reason for non-payment. Obviously, for some farmers it will mean they’re unable to pay their contractors.”
Clare Jerman, chartered surveyor at Roger Parry and Partners, said she had met ’numerous farmers’ whose Entry Level Stewardship (ELS) agreements had expired and who wished to access CS, which replaced ELS last year.
“They were unable to do so due to tightening up of the rules, mainly for the low input grassland option,” she said.
Ms Jerman submitted just three applications, but in January Natural England sent back forms for low input grassland. “After having an agronomist look at the ground, none of my clients could meet the requirements of having nine species of grass per square metre,” she said.
Sheep farmer Roy Hughes, received £2,000 a year under ELS, but has given up claiming. “They were asking the impossible,” he said. “We were getting nothing out of it, the countryside was getting nothing out of it."
Mr Hughes was preparing to coppice his hedges this winter under Natural England’s hedgerow coppicing scheme, and had brought in a contractor to quote for the work, but it withdrew its offer in July, a move he puts down to Brexit. “They keep telling us we must look after the environment, now they do this,” he said.
A Natural England spokesman said: "The Government recognises the need for certainty when it comes to EU-managed projects and will make an announcement in due course.
”The Government will do what is needed to support our farmers as we leave the EU and make a success of Brexit.”