Farming leaders give cautious welcome to Countryside Stewardship changes

Wildflower margins at Caistor St Edmund. Picture: ANTONY KELLY

Wildflower margins at Caistor St Edmund. Picture: ANTONY KELLY

Archant Norfolk 2016

East Anglian farming leaders have welcomed improvements to a conservation payment scheme, but said it is still “over-prescriptive” – which could put some farmers off applying.

When first introduced, Countryside Stewardship (CS) proved less popular than its Entry Level and Higher Level Stewardship (ELS and HLS) predecessors, so changes have been made to encourage more landowners to apply for the funding.

The revamped scheme, launched on January 15, now includes four new simplified packages for arable, mixed, upland and lowland grazing farms, each containing a series of options to boost wildlife through measures including creating flower-rich margins, buffer strips, and nesting plots.

Defra says these offers will complement the existing Higher Tier and Mid Tier CS schemes, with a quicker and easier application process.

And, unlike existing offers, all landowners who make a valid application for any of the four new packages will be guaranteed funding though the scheme.

National Farmers’ Union (NFU) East Anglia environment adviser Rob Wise welcomed the non-competitive evaluation process.

“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 ongoing 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.”

The Rural Payments Agency and Natural England were given the task of simplifying the scheme to save farmers time and cut down on paperwork.

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

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

Farmers and land managers have until May 31 to request a paper application pack, and those intending to apply online will be able to create their Online Arable Offer application pack from February 20.

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