The Stewardship Scheme gamble – stick or switch?

The government launch of the “Pathway to Sustainable Farming” in December 2020 heralded the introduction of a new Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS) from 2021 onwards. It may therefore surprise some that the Countryside Stewardship Scheme remains largely unaltered – the window for new applications for the Countryside Stewardship Scheme opened in February, and farmers and land managers will notice that this is on much the same basis as recent years.

Whilst certain elements of the ELMS will be introduced later in 2021, and pilot projects launched across the UK, the main structure of environmental stewardship will remain on the same basis as before until 2024. Furthermore, those that have entered a Countryside Stewardship Scheme in recent years, or do so this year, will have those schemes honoured at the current payment rates until the end of their agreement.

Arthey Associates director, Tom Arthey, says: “Some may wonder whether it is best to wait and see what a new scheme format has to offer in the coming years, but is that a gamble worth taking? The current schemes give certainty on multi-year and capital-only options, which the government may not be in a position to match in the future.”

Tom Arthey, Arthey Associates director

Tom continues: “Added to that consideration is that some of those options may, in time, become a mandatory requirement of a future payment scheme anyhow, so wouldn’t it be worth getting the experience of implementing now whilst it is a paid-for option?”

The Countryside Stewardship Scheme covers a range of schemes – Mid Tier Stewardship, streamlined Wildlife Offers, Higher Tier Stewardship, CS Capital Items applications to support boundaries and hedgerow improvements, water quality and air quality improvements.  There are also woodland creation, maintenance and management grants available as well.

Mid-Tier Stewardship offers a number of arable, mixed farming and grassland multi-year options, on a very similar basis to past years. These can be supplemented by options for capital grants to support a range of field boundary improvements.

“Depending on the location of the farm, and whether it is in high priority area for water quality, capital grants can also be applied for to help prevent nitrates and pesticides leaching into water courses. The grants pay for equipment that can hep solve these issues, such as paying towards water storage tanks, renewing concrete yards where runoff would occur, covering yards used for cattle handling, silage and manure storage, sprayer washdown sheds, bunds and biofilters,” says Tom. Under this route, you need to request an application pack online by 30th June 2021 (earlier if in writing) and have submitted the application by 30th July 2021.

Wildlife Offers is a streamlined option to apply for a set package of multi-year options depending on the type of enterprise and location (arable or mixed, lowland or upland). This is on the same deadline timescales as Mid-Tier.

As before, Higher-Tier stewardship applications are open in areas targeted for Higher Tier stewardship options. Whilst many of the multi-year options and capital items are the same as for Mid-Tier, there are some additional habitat creation and management features that just apply to Higher Tier applicants. Application packs need to be requested by 31st March 2021, and applications need to be submitted by 30th April 2021.

If you are already in Mid or Higher tier, or you just want to look at capital items, then there is an option to apply under the CS Capital Items grant. Applications need to be in by 30th April, and some items may require Catchment Sensitive Farming Officer approval.

Woodland Creation grants can be applied for as standalone grants all year round, or as part of a Higher Tier application, along with woodland management options. Where farmers may be thinking of planting woodlands on their farm, this provides grant funding towards the planting and protection of the trees, and some of the woodland infrastructure.

In terms of other grant funding possibilities for farm productivity improvement, or to support rural diversification projects, the last round of the EU-funded rural development grants closed last year. We are still waiting for guidance from the Government on what any future grant schemes will support, what level of funding will be available, and on what basis.

In the meantime, there are a number of government and private charitable grants available currently to support community projects in rural areas, large-scale environmental and energy projects, and business continuity and resilience.

A new £10 million fund to drive private sector investment in nature was launched by the Government in February and aims to support community groups or the private business sector with up to £100,000 grants to help them develop nature projects to a point where they can attract private investment. This can include large scale habitat renewal schemes on farmland, as one example.

The National Innovation Centre for Rural Enterprise (NICRE) has launched a new funding round to improve rural business productivity and associated challenges. These offer £15,000 grants to projects looking at technologies that improve agricultural productivity. The projects must, however, be run in collaboration with a UK Higher Education Institution.

Tom finishes: “Whilst at the current time the majority of grant funds are directed to support environmental measures, it is anticipated that the Government will, in due course, announce some additional funding streams to support innovation and productivity improvement, as well as rural diversification enterprises. As and when these schemes are announced, we will provide further information.”

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