Farm industry calls on government to resolve Countryside Stewardship delays

Wildflowers growing on the edge of a Norfolk farm field.  Picture: James Bass

Wildflowers growing on the edge of a Norfolk farm field. Picture: James Bass

Archant Norfolk © 2016

Years of valuable conservation work by farmers could be put at risk unless the government resolves problems with its agri-environment schemes, said three leading industry organisations.

The National Farmers’ Union (NFU), Country Land and Business Association (CLA) and Tenant Farmers Association (TFA) are calling on Defra to make its Countryside Stewardship scheme “fit for the future” and enable farmers to continue the good environmental work funded through this scheme and its predecessors.

The groups said many farmers reaching the end of agri-environment schemes are unable to start new agreements, and there is an “unacceptable” backlog of farmers awaiting months for payments for environmental work.

NFU deputy president Guy Smith said: “As recently as 2014 we had over 70pc of farmland involved in environmental work through entry and higher level stewardship schemes. The vast majority of farmers wanted to continue doing it when their current arrangements ended.

“Huge investment has gone into achieving environmental gains on farmland. But farmers are telling us as their agreements end that they don’t see the current scheme as a realistic option - the risks of falling foul of the rules is too high and Natural England are struggling to convert sufficient expiring HLS (Higher Level Stewardship) agreements into Higher Tier Countryside Stewardship.

“We need to make sure that stewardship is fit for the future. It’s also totally unacceptable that farmers are being forced to wait for payments. How can you run a business when payments for work that’s been carried out aren’t made on time?”

Cambridgeshire farmer Tim Breitmeyer, president of the CLA, said: “As farmers and landowners, we are rightly proud of the environmental delivery we have achieved through agri-environment schemes – many farmers delivering HLS or similar schemes for over 20 years.

“Alongside producing affordable food for the nation, these schemes allow us to deliver for the environment; managing and maintaining 70pc of the landscape; planting or restoring 30,000km of hedgerows, creating 37,000km of grass margins. I know just how passionate our members are about nurturing and enhancing our countryside. But it is critical that the government fulfils its contractual obligation of timely payment.”

TFA chief executive George Dunn said: “It is madness to be sacrificing good environmental management as a result of poor administration. Urgent, practical solutions need to be found to allow Natural England the breathing space it needs to deal with its current workload whilst it develops new, well designed and well run schemes for the post Brexit era.”

Last month, the EDP reported that the Rural Payments Agency (RPA), which is responsible for administering EU subsidies and environmental payments, was “failing on multiple levels” according to a critical report published by the government’s Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Efra) committee.

Jamie Lockhart, of Honingham Thorpe Farms, said one of the farms he manages is still awaiting £130,000 for environmental stewardship work, almost 18 months after the last payment was received.

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