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NFU seeks Countryside Stewardship assurances as Brexit shock hits

The shock waves from the Brexit vote are already being felt. We look at some of the areas where the future has been thrown into doubt, including funding for agri-environment schemes. 

Future funding for Countryside Stewardship is not yet confirmed
Future funding for Countryside Stewardship is not yet confirmed

The NFU has called for ‘speedy assurances’ from Defra about the long-term funding of the Countryside Stewardship Scheme (CSS) in England in the wake of the vote to leave the EU.


The Government has committed to providing support to farmers at levels provided under the CAP up to 2020.


The current direct payments regime is due to expire in 2020 but five-year and 10-year CSS agreements issued from this year are due to run beyond 2020. In addition, there are still HLS agreements, which are due to run until 2024.


Essex farmer and NFU deputy president Guy Smith, along with hundreds of others, submitted an expression of interest for a 10-year higher tier CSS agreement in April.


He was told to expect a reply after the EU referendum but has heard nothing since other than being informed his application is ‘still being progressed’.


He said: “I would imagine things are on hold while Defra consults with the Treasury, the consent of which will now be needed.


“We would like speedy assurances from Government they will stand by these offers that went out at the beginning of the year.


"CSS is being rolled out as a replacement for Higher Level Stewardship and Entry Level Stewardship and we need that assurance very quickly because these farmers are uncertain about what to do.”


Ongoing discussions


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Farming Minister George Eustice confirmed discussions were still taking place with the Treasury on the issue.


He told Farmers Guardian: "This is a really early challenge we are already considering.


"We are having ongoing discussion with the Treasury because I think it is important particularly for those agri-enviotonment schemes that there is continuity and a long transition period because these agreements by their nature are long-term.


"So resolving that is an early priority and discussions are going on."


A Defra spokesperson said an update on future funding under current EU schemes ’will follow shortly’.

“As the Prime Minister has made clear, the UK remains a member of the EU. We continue to engage with EU business as normal, be engaged in EU decision-making in the usual way and Rural Development Programmes across the UK remain in place."


Agri-environment funding doubts

The NFU is looking for the UK Treasury to provide commitments on various elements of England's current agri-environment network:


  • There are current HLS (underpinned with ELS) agreements that run until 2024
  • The new five year Countryside Stewardship agreements run until 2021
  • 10-year CSS agreements run until 2026
  • The application window for Countryside Stewardship mid and higher tier agreements closes on September 30 for agreements to start on January 1 2017
  • A number of applicants put in a higher tier expression of interest in the spring, as the first step to a full application
  • Potential applicants need to know if funding will be available for the duration of the agreement
  • Countryside Stewardship applicants are also waiting decisions regarding grant applications put in during the spring
  • There were 50 applications to the facilitation fund and 911 applications for the hedgerow and boundaries grant.



Where the Brexit shock waves are also being felt


The concern over agri-environment funding is just one of a number of immediate issues - alongside the big long-term policy question over the likes of trade and future farm support - that have arisen since the surprise Brexit vote.


Dairy promotional funding

Millions of pounds of EU funding which Dairy UK and AHDB Dairy had hoped to secure for promoting UK dairy products at home and abroad appears to have been lost, according to Dairy UK chair David Dobbin.


While the UK could still apply for the funding, to go alongside contributions from the two organisations, it is questionable whether the EU would now consider it.


Dr Dobbin called for Defra to ‘step up to the plate’ and for the UK and devolved Governments to provide ‘unconditional support for the dairy industry’ to ensure it can continue to be market led and innovative.


Dairy UK and AHDB Dairy have already held discussion about the options available to them to ensure the promotional campaign is not derailed by the Brexit vote.


Food and farming plan

In a further reflection of the turmoil, Defra has been forced to go back to the drawing board with the formation of its long-term strategy for food and farming.


The strategy, already the focus of much time and resource over the past 12 months or so, had been ready for some time but publication was delayed until after the EU.


NFU vice president Guy Smith said it would now have to be ‘substantially or completely rewritten', while another source was more blunt, suggesting the whole thing had been 'binned'.


Speaking at the Livestock Event on Wednesday, Farming Minister George Eustice said: We will still publish our food and farming plan. It is a manifesto commitment.


"We had a near perfect draft before we hit purdah. I think it is fair to say we will need to do a little revision of that.


The decision to leave the EU is a game-changer. It means that we will leave the CAP and we will have lot of opportunity to develop a new agricultural policy with a clean sheet of paper which is fit-for-purpose."


TB funding

The European Commission currently provides annual funding for the UK to be spent on addressing zoonotic animal diseases.


This year the figure was €32m (£23.6m), distributed between the four UK nations to be spent mainly on TB eradication programmes.


Industry figures fear this money is now in doubt, which would impose additional pressure on the industry unless Defra stepped in to fill the gap.


And looking further ahead, cattle industry leaders are also pondering whether the EU could seek to impose restrictions on exports from the most infected TB areas.


Investment worries

We are hearing of some companies which were planning to invest in the food chain, including in dairy processing, which are now having second thoughts.


CAP rules

The UK increasingly faces being 'marginalised' from talks in Brussels over rules that will directly affect UK farmers.


For example, the European Commission is looking to progress its Greening Simplification agenda in the next few weeks.


This is likely to mean changes to greening rules that UK farmers will need to follow, possibly from January 2017, but certainly for 1 January 2018, according to NFU BPS adviser Richard Wordsworth.


But he said: "This will be one of the first areas of ongoing EU legislative review that will see the UK marginalised in the negotiations, but still needing to have to comply with the outcome of the review process."


BPS uplift

On the brighter side, there is a potential for an increase in the level of 2016 BPS payments if sterling currency remains weaker against the euro than the 2015 BPS reference level.


The reference period set for BPS is the average of sterling/euro exchange rates set by the European Central Bank during September.


And better prices

The fall in the value of sterling has also made British products more competitive at home and abroad and that is helping to boost prices across the farm sectors.


For, example, dairy companies exporting are seeing more value in their product, and interestingly, seeing more inquiries and demand for such products‎.


But, against that, the exchange rate situation means the cost of inputs will rise in some cases.


EU worker fears

The British Veterinary Association (BVA) has written to Defra Secretary Liz Truss and the devolved administrations requesting an early statement clarifying that non-British EU vets and vet nurses currently living, studying or working in the UK would continue to be able to do so in future.


Almost half of veterinary surgeons registering in the UK qualified from veterinary schools elsewhere in the EU, according to statistics from the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS).


Home Secretary Theresa May has so far refused to issue any guarantees on the future of workers from other EU countries in the UK post-Brexit.


A briefing paper published this week by the Food Research Collaboration called for farming jobs to be made more attractive to British workers as Brexit will ‘bring into force a significant reduction in migration’.


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