Rural Payments Agency Launches Countryside Stewardship for 2021 -We provide key updates on changes made to the new and improved scheme for 2021
Launched on 9th February for the upcoming scheme year, The Countryside Stewardship Scheme has undergone a number of significant changes for 2021. Offering farmers and land managers agreements to help improve and protect the natural environment, the scheme is now open and has this year been designed to make it more attractive to potential applicants. Here, David Morley, Head of Conservation & Environment for H&H Land & Estates elaborates on these improvements, and encourages all to apply.
- A) Capital Grants
The number of standalone capital grants available has been considerably widened, and the maximum grant that can be applied for has been increased to £20,000 in each of the three strands:
- Hedgerows & Boundaries Grant
This offers 2-year capital works agreements for hedgerow and dry-stone wall restoration. Grants are paid at “standard” rates (e.g. £25 per metre for wall restoration, £9.40 per metre for hedge laying). In addition, for the first time, it is now possible to apply for new hedge planting, which is paid at £11.60 per metre.
- Water Capital Grants
Water Capital Grants continue to be available in much of Cumbria and various other catchments across the north of England. These 2-year grants contribute towards capital projects that offer water quality benefits, such as re-concreting broken yards (£27.14 per me) or covering over silage pits or middens (£62 per m2). The increase in maximum grant makes it much more feasible to roof many silage pits, which are simply too large to have been done within the previous £10k limit. Most water capital grant items must be endorsed by the local Natural England Catchment Sensitive Farming Officer.
Under this strand, it is now also possible to apply for new fencing to protect watercourses. This pays £4.90 a metre and CSFO endorsement is not needed.
- Air Quality Grants
New for 2021 are Air Quality grants, aimed at reducing ammonia emissions. There are three capital items available:
- Automatic slurry scrapers, paid at £2,760 per channel or passageway
- Low emission flooring for livestock buildings, paid at £72 per m2
- Planting trees to create a shelter belt to intercept ammonia emissions
In each case, CSFO endorsement is needed to apply for the item.
For all the Capital Grants, the application window is open until 30th April 2021. For Water Capital Grants, this is considerably earlier than previous years, when the deadline was the end of July. Where CSFO endorsement is needed, all the necessary evidence must be provided to them by 19th March. Farmers already in a Higher Level Environmental Stewardship (HLS) agreement can also apply for any of the standalone capital grants, provided they are compatible with their existing agreement.
- B) Mid Tier
Mid Tier is aimed at delivering environmental gains at a landscape scale across the wider countryside through 5-year agreements. 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.
Applications can include any of the two-year Capital Grants above. However, for the first time in 2021, the RPA are introducing a cap on these items: £50k for hedgerows and boundaries and £120k for each of the Water Capital and Air Quality Grants.
Other changes for 2021 include:
- Educational access payments available for the first time in Mid Tier
- Expansion of the eligibility criteria for option UP2 Rough Grazing for Birds
- Wood-pasture Maintenance now available in the uplands (SDA) at £212 per ha; the land must be recorded as being wood-pasture or parkland on MAGIC, the Government’s online interactive mapping resource
The four “simplified” Mid Tier Stewardship Offers for arable farms, lowland livestock farms, upland farms and mixed farms continue. These Offers group together options that are likely to be suitable on each farm-type. Unlike other Mid Tier applications, the Mid Tier offers can be applied for online and are not subject to competitive scoring – applicants are guaranteed an agreement. Capital items cannot be included in the Simplified Offers, but farmers applying for them can now, for the first time, also apply separately for any of the Capital Grants.
For a Mid Tier agreement to start on 1st January 2022, the application window runs until 30th July 2021, but paper application packs must be ordered by 31st May or downloaded online by 30th June. If CSFO endorsement is needed, all the necessary evidence must be provided to them by 31st May.
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 have submitted over 200 successful Countryside Stewardship applications in the last six years.
- C) Higher Tier
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 SSSIs, moorland, woodland or other high priority habitats.
The main change this year is that the wood-pasture options withdrawn from the uplands last year (because they were considered not cost-effective) have been re-introduced with new payment rates. Ironically, for WD4 and WD5, these rates are higher than their lowland equivalents!
- WD4 Maintenance of wood-pasture £212 per ha (also available in Mid Tier)
- WD5 Restoration of wood-pasture £316 per ha
- WD6 Creation of wood-pasture £333 per ha
For those interested in Higher Tier, an “Initial Application” needs to be submitted by 30th April 2021. 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.
- D) CS Renewals
Countryside Stewardship agreements that started in January 2016 will finish at the end of this year. As happened last year, we anticipate that the RPA will offer 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.
We strongly recommend anyone in this position seeks professional advice before making a decision.