Countryside Stewardship Scheme is Worth a Second Look

Farmers are being advised to take a second look at the mid-tier Countryside Stewardship Scheme (CSS), as it offers potential to secure significantly higher payments than were available under the old Entry Level Stewardship (ELS) scheme.

Farmers and land managers can make the mid-tier scheme work for their businesses economically and practically, despite problems associated with the scheme’s design and delivery over the past couple of years, according to Strutt & Parker.

Robert Gazely

Robert Gazely

However, they should also be aware they need to take action soon if they do want to apply for the scheme.

Mid-tier application packs must be requested by 31 July, with the deadline for applications 30 September 2017.

Robert Gazely, farm consultant in the Chelmsford office of Strutt & Parker, urged farmers to be open-minded about the scheme, despite well-publicised issues surrounding its introduction.

“The scheme has not had the easiest of starts, with delays in getting agreements in place and in the delivery of payments hitting the headlines,” he said.

“However, while CSS is more complex than previous stewardship schemes, farmers should not rule it out without considering how it might benefit their business.

“The scheme is, of course, designed to bring environmental improvements, but some of the options can offer surprisingly high levels of funding, with the annual payments a valuable income stream to a farm business.

“Applications can also be put together that use options which will bring management benefits, such as helping farmers to achieve cultural control of blackgrass.”

Mr Gazely pointed out that some ELS options such as the farm environment record and ditch management were not available under CSS.

However, other ELS options such as buffer strips could be augmented under CSS to become flower-rich margins which would secure a higher level of payment.

“Under additional CSS options, winter bird food (AB9) can then be coupled together with supplementary winter feeding (AB12) for farmland birds and this may well have synergies if there is a shoot on the land,” he added.

“A two-year sown legume fallow (AB15) is also an effective option where are there are challenges with growing break crops as well as controlling blackgrass.”

Mr Gazely said one business he was working with, that had received £16,000 per year in ELS revenue, was hoping to boost this to £22,600/year under CSS by adding in the additional options.

“ELS revenue was a whole-farm payment of £30/ha/yr and CSS options are different insofar as they are individually remunerated.

“However, if we divide the projected CSS revenue by the whole farm area, this works out at £41/ha/yr which is 38% higher than the £30/ha/yr payment offered through ELS.

“I have seen other examples where the whole-farm equivalent value of CSS is far higher than £41/ha.”

Mr Gazely stressed that the level of commitment and mix of management options that the agreement holder was willing to implement would determine how lucrative a CSS agreement might be.

It was also vital to look at how impending changes to Ecological Focus Areas (EFAs) might impact on the business if the farm was entered into CSS.

“Gone are the days when completing a Basic Payment Scheme application, planning an arable-cropping rotation and implementing an environmental stewardship agreement were mutually exclusive and could be addressed entirely separately.

“There is now a requirement for careful, holistic planning of the arable rotation to ensure compliance under the greening rules with crop diversification and the requirement for 5% Ecological Focus Areas (EFAs).

“For example, farmers with ELS agreements preceding January 2012 were able to use relevant options in their ELS agreements to count towards their greening obligations without any changes to payments.

“However, these five-year agreements have now all come to an end and anyone in the new CSS will be affected by double-funding rules, which mean that if CSS options are used for EFA then the CSS payment is slashed. This all needs to be considered when pulling together a CSS application.”

Mr Gazely said farmers were advised to get their applications in as soon as possible, as this would enable Natural England to assess and process them – or answer any technical queries – while things were relatively quiet.

“We have been told that there the vast majority of applications are submitted just before the deadline – so it is worth getting in early before Natural England gets overwhelmed.”

Strutt Parker

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