Improvements to Countryside Stewardship welcome, but scheme still ‘over-prescriptive’, NFU warns

Farm under Countryside Stewardship. Picture: DEFRA

Farm under Countryside Stewardship. Picture: DEFRA - Credit: Archant

East Anglian farmers’ leaders have welcomed improvements to a farm conservation subsidy scheme but warned it was still “over-prescriptive” and this could put off some farmers.

Countryside Stewardship schemes proved less popular than their Entry Level Stewardship and Higher Level Stewardship precedecessors and farming bodies lobbied for improvements. In 2016, 2017 and 2018, there were 326, 661 and 808 applications respectively for Higher Tier schemes, and 2360, 3830 and 3991 for Mid Tier ones.

The revamped scheme, with four simpler offers “to complement the existing Higher Tier and Mid Tier” ones was launched on January 15, after the Rural Payments Agency and Natural England were tasked with simplifying it.

National Farmers’ Union (NFU) East Anglia environment adviser Rob Wise welcomed the non-competitive evaluation process for the options, pointing out that this had casued delay in getting schemes agreed before their start dates for the past couple of years at a time when applications were well within budgets and therefore contained no real competitive element.

“However, the new simplified packages are still based on the over prescriptive options of Countryside Stewardship, so only time will tell whether they are sufficiently attractive to farmers,” he said.

“The NFU will continue to push for on-going improvements and we are keen to see learn from our members whether the changes made for this application round make the schemes any more attractive to farmers, as they consider their 2019 options in light of Brexit.”

Steve Podd, a retired adviser with farm conservation body Suffolk FWAG, said in general he welcomed the ‘simplified’ offers and the move towards meeting criteria to replace the competitive element, but said much of the simplication was to the process and believes more could be done to increase take-up.

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“At least it’s a first step in the right direction,” he said.

Farming minister George Eustice said the government had listened to those who said the schemes had become too complicated.

“My message to farmers who’ve been put off Countryside Stewardship in the last few rounds is to take another look and see what’s on offer this year.”