Countryside stewardship

Countryside Stewardship

The new Countryside Stewardship Scheme (CSS) was introduced in 2015 by Natural England (NE) to replace the previous Stewardship Schemes – we highlight the changes.

 

What's new?

As part of the Rural Development Programme for England 2014-2020, the new Countryside Stewardship Scheme (CSS) was introduced in 2015 by Natural England (NE) to replace the previous Entry and Higher Level Stewardship Schemes (ELS and HLS) with which most farmers and landowners are familiar, if not part of. Rather than meeting a points target, with guaranteed entry, all applications are now scored and it is at the discretion of NE if they are accepted. However, its is intimated that if certain targets are met then the likelihood of being accepted is good. The old ELS covered approximately 70% of farmed land and NE have accepted that the new scheme will cover less farmland (possibly around 40%) but with the introduction of the Basic Payment Scheme they are hopeful the requirements for Greening and Ecological Focus Areas will compensate for this. There is also a considerably greater focus on record keeping to show that the prescriptions are being correctly adhered to.

Statement of priorities

NE’s aims under the new scheme have become more area specific with the country being split into 159 “Statement of Priorities” areas. Therefore it is important to familiarise yourself with the appropriate  statement for your area to identify which habitats and species are the NE priorities and consequently which options would be most appropriate. There is also encouragement being offered for applications that will protect water quality and (if possible) to apply in conjunction with neighbours proposing similar options that will help target habitats.

Public access and pasture

Surprisingly the new scheme does not offer payments for permissive public access (encouraged in previous incarnations of the CSS) and many farmers have discovered where they are predominantly grassland the options available (and corresponding payments) are such that it is difficult to justify the necessary management time to keep the required records.

Mid tier

The application window runs from 14th March to 30th September and selected options cover 3 – 5% of the farmed area. Applications must be based on the Statement of Priorities for the area and will likely, in one way shape or form, include the Wild Pollinator and Farm Wildlife Package – i.e. include nectar flower mixes, over wintered stubbles and other options that encourage insects and birds. Whilst this is similar to ELS the hurdles are slightly higher but, unlike ELS, capital funding is available for specific projects – such as ditching, fencing etc. A successful application will run from January 2017 and be for 5 years.

Higher tier

Those with historic HLS agreements should be contacted directly by NE and will likely be encouraged to enter this and certainly anyone considering a higher tier application is encouraged to make contact with NE at the earliest opportunity. Formally the process begins by submitting an Expression of Interest form to NE which will be considered by the NE advisor in your area. If this scores sufficiently the advisor will then work with you to produce a formal application. It is suggested that applications should include options covering 5 – 10% of the total farmed area and again the selected options should be relevant to the habitats and species highlighted in the relevant Statement of Priorities for your area.

Hedgerow and Boundary Capital Grant Scheme

Unlike previous incarnations of CSS NE are also offering capital grants of up to £5,000 without the need to enter into a longer term agreement with annual management requirements. 

Conclusion

The scheme has been running since 2015 and the first round of applications have now been processed. There was a disappointing number of applicants for the new scheme, caused by a lack of familiarity, lack of attractive options, poor timing and onerous record keeping requirements – especially for grassland farmers. Ultimately it is too soon to judge the success or failure of the scheme as a whole but recent pledges from Defra to “simplify” the new scheme suggest they didn’t get it right first time. Whilst entry in to a Stewardship agreement is no longer the no brainer it was under the old regime, it is certainly still worthy of serious consideration – especially for mixed and arable farms, farms with SSSI’s or where major capital improvements are planned – where a carefully planned and considered application should comfortably sit alongside a commercial agricultural business whilst delivering genuine environmental benefits. 

If you are considering entering your land into the Countryside Stewardship Scheme then please do get in touch and we would be happy to advise on its suitability for your situation.

 
 

Key contacts

Philip Eddell

Philip Eddell

Director
Country House Consultancy

Savills Newbury

+44 (0) 1635 277 709

+44 (0) 1635 277 709