Countryside Stewardship has been widely criticised by farmers and conservationists alike. But will new changes make it a practical choice for livestock farmers? Chloe Palmer finds out more.
The launch of Countryside Stewardship (CS) last summer was widely anticipated by livestock farmers seeking to replace payments they received for their Entry Level and Upland Entry Level schemes.
When details of the scheme emerged, it quickly became obvious CS was a very different animal. Fewer grassland options, onerous record keeping requirements and a level of complexity baffling to experienced agents meant it was dismissed by many.
This year, Natural England claims it has listened to feedback and has made changes, ensuring the scheme is user-friendly with more choice and flexibility.
Claire Robinson, countryside adviser for the NFU, welcomes the changes and believes they will make the scheme more accessible.
She says: “The re-write of the guidance is a positive step because having clear information up-front is excellent. There are additional grassland options in mid-tier, especially in the uplands, offering more scope to suit different systems.
“The temporary removal of the £5,000 minimum scheme value threshold is good news for smaller farmers who were previously excluded from applying to the scheme.
“Some of the revisions to option requirements, such as the allowance of part field parcels under the GS2 and GS5 permanent grassland with very low inputs, are beneficial.”
Marian Wilby, land management team leader with the Nidderdale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, agrees the changes for 2016 are positive.
She says: “If farmers looked at CS last year and discounted it, they should look again because the changes made make it more viable for smaller farms and grassland holdings.
This gateway would be suitable for putting forward under RP1.
“New options for severely disadvantaged areas, such as the hay-making supplement, the lenient grazing option and the cattle grazing supplement, make the scheme more attractive financially.”
Record keeping remains an issue for many, Mrs Wilby says, and she advises livestock farmers to think carefully about whether they are willing to sign up to keep detailed grazing records for the duration of their agreement.
Mrs Wilby points to the differences in complexity between CS and old environmental stewardship schemes and urges caution when putting together an application.
She says: “There is so much detail behind each option in CS and, when choosing options, it is vital to read each prescription carefully and consider how restrictions will impact existing management of each parcel.
“Sometimes there will be one small detail which will be the deal breaker.”
For farmers with a significant area of moorland within their holding, mid-tier is rarely suitable, Mrs Wilby says.
“There are no options in mid-tier for moorland in blocks of more than 15 hectares, but there are options in higher tier. Farms stand a reasonable chance of success with higher tier if they have moorland plus some unimproved grassland or wetland.”
Under the scheme, this field would qualify for the seasonal livestock removal option next to streams.
Mrs Wilby finds CS can work well on dairy farms with some spring cropping.
“The wholecrop cereals [AB7] option pays £495/ha and restrictions are not too difficult to comply with. The enhanced management of maize crops option is worth looking at if farmers are confident they can harvest before October 1.
“Conversely, on beef and sheep farms with only permanent grass, options are more limited, so farmers may find the financial value of the scheme is not a sufficient incentive.”
There is a range of capital items available in catchment sensitive farming (CSF) target areas, but farmers need to plan ahead if they wish to include these in their application, according to Mrs Wilby.
“Options such hardcore tracks and concrete yard renewal will require endorsement of a local CSF officer, so it is vital farmers allow time for this consultation.
“If options are to be located within the farmyard, it is essential to obtain field parcel numbers for them if they are currently shown as white space on Rural Payments Agency maps and this can prove time consuming.”
Mrs Wilby is pleased Natural England has simplified and relaxed rules relating to supplementary information needed in support of applications.
She says: “Farmers still need to supply soil analysis for each field parcel entered into GS2 and GS5 [permanent grassland with very low inputs]. But now they only need measure phosphate and pH levels and the results do not have to be supplied until the farmer has been notified his application has been successful.”
Cow tracks can be funded under the RP4 strand - livestock and machinery hardcore tracks.
Mrs Wilby emphasises the scheme is competitive, so all applications will be scored against national and local criteria.
“To secure a successful application, farmers will need to look at Natural England’s targeting maps and consider choosing some of the high priority options. Farmers need to think whether an option will suit the farm and should never try and ‘tweak it’ or interpret rules to their own advantage.”
Ms Robinson supports this, urging farmers to apply for an application pack as soon as possible so they can begin thinking about everything they need to do.
“Look at each option carefully and make sure it is feasible to comply with all the requirements. For example, if choosing the very low input grassland options (GS2 or GS5), make sure you can comply with the no supplementary feeding clause or leave part of the field out of the option so you can supplementary feed there.”
Ms Robinson says farmers must take ownership of their own agreement.
She says: “There are farmers out there signing agreements without fully understanding what they are committing to. This is a legally binding contract and those signing up to it will have to abide by all conditions for a minimum of five years.”
Unsurfaced tracks would be suitable for including in option RP4.
Countryside Stewardship is the agri-environment scheme available to all eligible farmers, land managers and foresters in England. It includes four main strands:
Farmers choosing an option which limits grazing activity will have to comply with the following:
Whole farm and individual parcel records must be maintained to demonstrate compliance with this requirement.
Norman Shepherd farms 118 hectares (292 acres) at Dallowgill, Upper Nidderdale, North Yorkshire. Kingstone Farm comprises 101ha (250 acres) of grass and 17ha (42 acres) of spring barley.
Mr Shepherd milks 230 cows and fattens 3,400 pigs. His Upland Entry Level Scheme (UELS) expired last year, so he decided to look at the new Countryside Stewardship (CS) scheme.
He says: “Under UELS, I had most of my walls in the maintenance options and I was disappointed there was no similar option in CS.
“The major option I chose was the wholecrop cereals because this is what I am doing anyway.”
The requirement to retain the stubble following harvest until February in the following year means Mr Shepherd can no longer grow stubble turnips afterwards, but this is not a serious concern for him.
He says: “Most years we would put in the stubble turnips, but in a wet, cool year, we might not get them in. The payment we receive [£495/ha or £200/acre] compensates us adequately anyway.
“We looked at the permanent grassland with very low inputs, but the payment is very low.
“So we have included fields in the seasonal removal of livestock option, paying £36/ha, and we will only have to bring cows off a little earlier than usual.”
As he is in a Catchment Sensitive Farming target area, Mr Shepherd has chosen some of the capital items aimed at reducing diffuse pollution.
“We have gone for the resurfacing of gateway option and have used some surplus stone from fields. We have opted for hard-cored farm tracks and this has worked well.
“We were successful in applying for yard concreting because the yard was starting to break up. Our payment for capital items arrived promptly.”
Mr Shepherd says most farmers will choose to use advisers to guide them through the process and prepare the application because of ‘all the small print’.
He adds: “Record keeping is a worry, but I am hoping my wife will be able to work out what we need to do and it is no different from what we have to do for all the different assurance schemes.”