Farmer support for CFE ‘more vital than ever’ as funding cut

Elizabeth Ranelagh, Farm Conservation Adviser.

Elizabeth Ranelagh, Farm Conservation Adviser. - Credit: Archant

Support for a voluntary farming conservation campaign is more vital than ever after it suffered deep cuts to its budget, farmers’ leaders have stressed.

From this month, the Campaign for the Farmed Environment (CFE) will get around a quarter of the cash allocated to it previously as a result of Government cutbacks.

It’s unclear as yet precisely what that will mean for this region’s effort. CFE regional co-ordinator Elizabeth Ranelagh, while welcoming the continuation of the scheme until April 2017, said that she and the county co-ordinators would have to cut back on the number of events they organise and attend in order to get their message across about farming in a financially sustainable but environmentally beneficial way.

“We have known it (the CFE budget) was likely to either go or be reduced,” she said.

“We were originally told we would know in November, and we were finally told in February and we still don’t know the detail of what we’ll be asked to do.”

Once they know more, they will look at what they can offer, but the numbers of CFE-funded days per month will be cut, she said.

“Last year we ran four or five series of events so something like 30 or 40 events across the region. Now we might be able to run 12. We also attended lots of events and obviously we’ll be able to do less of that.

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“Given we thought we might have nothing, it’s good news, and given how many cuts the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) has been asked to make, it shows very much they think it’s a good thing. They have found some money, so from that point of view it’s good, and potentially it enables us to get some private money.”

But meanwhile, a target-led process which enabled farmers to introduce subsidised environmental measures via Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) and Entry Level Stewardship (ELS) schemes has been replaced which a competitive scheme with a limited pot of cash.

“Looking at the not-so-bright side, we are going to have a lot of farmers looking at what to do with their land if they can’t get into (the new) Countryside Stewardship,” she said.

“Obviously, the agri-environment landscape is in flux at the moment, because there will be fewer agri-environment schemes in the future because of the changes in environmental stewardship.”

Both HLS and ELS were closed to future applicants in 2014, but because they last for 10 years and five years respectively, some won’t come to an end for some years. The scheme was launched in 2005/06 which means the first HLS scheme will expire this year, with a small number next year and a larger number in the following year, she said.

But those considering throwing their hat in the ring for the latest scheme faced a complicated application process, and during the first year there had been IT problems.

“I would think they got half the applications they expected,” she said.

“One of the messages we need to point out is: ‘Have a go, because it’s not as difficult as you might think.’”

The National Farmers’ Union (NFU) and the Country, Land and Business Association (CLA) said the support provided through the Campaign for the Farmed Environment is more vital now than ever as many thousands of farmers have expiring agri-environment scheme agreements.

The two organisations, which are headline partners of CFE, are encouraging farmers to make the best use of its support and resources. There are 96 CFE-led events planned for 2016 and work continues on the discounted pollen and nectar mix seedbank, online training and advice on biodiversity, resource protection, soil nutrition and exiting agri-environment schemes.

NFU vice president Guy Smith said: “CFE brings together the agricultural sector in a way that’s never been seen before. It quantifies how farmers are consistently delivering for the environment – hundreds of thousands of hectares are now in voluntary environmental management.

“As thousands of farmers are coming to the end of their ELS-HLS agreements and struggling to find a place in the new Countryside Stewardship schemes, I’m pleased to see the CFE will continue to provide the valuable on-the-ground support for the environment as recognised by Natural England.”

CLA deputy president Tim Breitmeyer said: “We are at a time of significant change in terms of environmental schemes, and particularly with fewer agreements under the new Countryside Stewardship scheme.

“It is important to bridge the gap between the environmental compliance requirements under the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and stewardship-level environmental work – there is evidence to suggest this has produced tangible environmental benefit in the recent past. We are encouraging our members to make the most of the support and resources on offer through CFE to take advice on best practice and continue investment in voluntary environmental measures, which also support farm productivity.”