Farmers urged to show they are ‘taking environmental management seriously’

PUBLISHED: 16:44 11 February 2020 | UPDATED: 16:51 11 February 2020

A new application window has opened for 2021 Countryside Stewardship (CS) agreements, which pay farmers for environmental features such as wildflower margins.  Picture: James Bass

A new application window has opened for 2021 Countryside Stewardship (CS) agreements, which pay farmers for environmental features such as wildflower margins. Picture: James Bass

Archant Norfolk © 2016

Farmers can prove they are “taking environmental management seriously” by signing up to a government green payments scheme which could help bridge a financial gap after Brexit, said rural agents.

A new application window has opened today for 2021 Countryside Stewardship (CS) agreements, which will pay farmers and land managers for environmental work such as restoring wildlife habitats, creating woodlands and managing flood risk.

Defra says applying for CS this year is the best way to prepare for the future Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS) which will eventually replace the EU's current land-based subsidy system with one which instead rewards farmers for producing "public goods" including better air and water quality or improved access to the countryside.

Zoe Brooks, graduate farm consultant in the Norwich office of Strutt and Parker, said farmers who may previously have been reluctant to join the scheme should reconsider its financial value in this changing economic landscape - particularly on marginal land and awkward field corners which could become "environmentally-productive" areas of wildflowers or winter bird seed mixes.

And she agreed it is also a good way to demonstrate a willingness to work towards the environmental priorities which will underpin future government policies.

"A well-structured mid-tier CS agreement can work for many farmers on a practical and financial level, as well as delivering for the environment," she said. "The benefits of a mid-tier CS agreement starting in January 2021 include locking into a guaranteed revenue stream for the next five years. This will become increasingly important as Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) support starts falling away from 2021 and it will be at least 2024 before the new Environmental Land Management System (ELMS) is rolled out nationwide.

"The government has already said anyone who enters into new agreements of Countryside Stewardship from 2021 will be able to exit those agreements without penalty if they are being financially penalised in comparison to ELMS, so there seems no disadvantage to going into a scheme now.

"It's also an opportunity for farmers to demonstrate that they are taking environmental management seriously, which is important given the government has signalled that the provision of public goods such as improved biodiversity, water and air quality will be a priority in future."

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The government intends to roll out a national pilot for ELMS in 2021, with the scheme expected to be fully operational by the end of 2024. Meanwhile, the current system of EU direct subsidies, administered via the Basic Payments Scheme (BPS) is due to be phased out over seven years from 2021.

Farming minister George Eustice said CS was a "stepping stone" towards the new system.

"Paying farmers for protecting the environment and enhancing animal welfare is front and centre of our future farming policy and entering a Countryside Stewardship scheme is a good stepping stone to that future policy," he said.

"There is nothing to be gained by holding back. We are guaranteeing that anyone who joins our new scheme in the future will be able to leave their CS agreement early in order to do so."

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