Countryside Stewardship Scheme Launched
Rural Payments Agency announces details for 2020
The Countryside Stewardship Scheme was launched on 11th February for the 2020 scheme year and David Morley, Head of Conservation & Environment for H&H Land & Estates, explains that there are no fundamental changes to the Scheme design and here provides a summary. There continues to be two tiers – Higher Tier and Mid Tier, plus the standalone capital works scheme, the Hedgerows & Boundaries Grant.
Hedgerows & Boundaries Grant
As with last year, this scheme offers standalone capital grants of up to £10,000 for hedgerow and dry-stone wall restoration. Grants are paid at “standard” rates (e.g. £25 per metre for wall restoration, £9.50 per metre for hedgerow gapping-up). The application window is open until 1st May 2020 and applications can be submitted online through Rural Payments. Farmers who applied successfully last year can apply again but businesses that have not previously received a grant will be given priority if there is not enough money to go around.
Mid Tier is aimed at delivering environmental gains at a landscape scale across the wider countryside. The scheme offers 5-year agreements with options that are generally simpler than Higher Tier. In addition, applications can include a 2-year capital works programme of hedgerow planting, hedge laying or gapping up and dry-stone wall restoration. Mid Tier is intended to be a competitive scheme, although low take-up so far has meant virtually all applicants have been offered an agreement.
In 2018, 4 ‘simplified’ Mid Tier Stewardship Offers were launched, targeted at 1) arable farms, 2) lowland livestock farms, 3) upland farms and 4) mixed farms. Unlike other Mid Tier applications, the simplified offers can be applied for online and are not subject to competitive scoring – applicants are guaranteed an agreement.
In a change from previous years, options to manage the historic environment are now available through the Simplified Offers. If you have a Scheduled Monument on your land, it means you can now apply for a Simplified Offer, which was not previously available. However, it is still not possible to include capital works through the Mid Tier offer so, for most applicants, standard Mid Tier is still the better option.
Water capital grants continue to be available in much of Cumbria and North Yorkshire and some areas of Northumberland (parts of the Tweed, Lyne and Wansbeck catchments) and County Durham (the Skerne and parts of the Tees catchment) for works that offer water quality benefits, such as re-concreting broken yards or covering over silage pits or middens. These can be standalone capital works applications, when they are capped at £10,000, or included within a wider Mid Tier application, when payments are potentially unlimited. Either way, any application involving water capital grants must be endorsed by the local Natural England Catchment Sensitive Farming Officer.
With the plethora of options and capital items available within Mid Tier, it is not always straightforward for farmers to decide which is the best way to go, making it essential that they seek professional advice. H&H Land & Estates has helped over 120 clients successfully apply for Countryside Stewardship in the last five years.
For a Mid Tier agreement to start on 1st January 2021, the application window runs until 31st July 2020, but paper application packs must be ordered by 31st May or downloaded online by 30th June.
Higher Tier is targeted at land that can deliver significant conservation gains. It is aimed mainly at farms coming out of Higher Level Environmental Stewardship (HLS) agreements and farms with Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs), moorland, woodland or other high priority habitats.
For those interested in Higher Tier, an “Initial Application” needs to be submitted by 1st May 2020, making it a very short application window. Application packs must be ordered by 31st March, so farmers need to take action quickly if they want to apply for Higher Tier. If you are not already in discussion with Natural England, the chances are your application will not be supported for this Scheme year.
If the initial application is successful, Natural England or the Forestry Commission then take the application forward and work towards making a formal agreement offer in the autumn. If you are happy with what is proposed, the Higher Tier agreement would start on 1st Jan 2021. Natural England will support applicants through this process, but independent advice remains vital in ensuring that what is proposed will be best for your farming business.
It is already 5 years since the first CS applications were made and many of those agreements will finish at the end of this year. In most cases, the RPA is offering CS agreement holders the opportunity to extend their agreement for a further 12 months. There are pros and cons to doing this.
The advantage of continuing with a current agreement is that you can carry on as you are for another 12 months with no additional application costs. The Scheme is competitive and there is always the possibility (albeit rather small, with the current low take-up) that a new application might not be accepted. On the other hand, if you want to make changes to your options, a new application might be the better course of action. You could also take advantage of a new 2-year capital works programme as part of a new application. This could include hedge or wall restoration or water capital grants for roofing or concreting.
David concludes: “The RPA has asked agreement holders to either accept or decline the extension offer by 20th March so if you are in any doubt about your current or future position with regard to the Scheme, please seek professional advice as soon as possible before making a decision as the clock has started to tick on deadlines for this year.”