The Countryside Stewardship scheme explained
Applications are now open for claims for the Countryside Stewardship Scheme, which aims to support rural businesses which look after and improve the environment.
The Countryside Stewardship Scheme has adapted and changed over many years, and will continue to do so again in future, so there’s understandably some confusion over what the scheme is and how it sits alongside other support mechanisms.
The scheme can however be one of the most beneficial support packages to farms and it’s recognised as having good value in terms of environmental outcomes. Furthermore, with Basic Payments starting to be reduced from this year, the scheme is also a useful route for making up some of the financial shortfall.
The Countryside Stewardship scheme was originally introduced in 1991 and ran until 2014 before being relaunched for the Rural Development Programme England (RDPE).
The new version of the scheme also sought to replace the Environmental Stewardship Scheme (ESS), which itself built on the Environmentally Sensitive Areas (ESA) scheme, the previous iteration of the Countryside Stewardship (CS) scheme and the Organic Farming Scheme (OFS).
Throughout this period, these schemes were funded through the European Union and so, moving forward, the current system is undergoing a transformation. Under the new plans, the CS and all other schemes which were available under the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), including the Basic Payment Scheme (BPS), will be replaced by the new Environmental Land Management (ELM) scheme.
This new scheme should be fully rolled out by 2024, by which point most schemes will have been phased out.
To help streamline the process, the CS scheme has been adapted so that, by entering the CS agreement now, farmers will benefit from the new agricultural policy once it is fully rolled out. The scheme is also now administered by the Rural Payments Agency (RPA) which has worked with the agriculture industry to improve the process and offer online access.
How the CS scheme works
Fundamentally, the CS scheme provides financial incentives for farmers, woodland owners, foresters and land managers to look after and improve the environment.
The scheme aims to encourage and support efforts to conserve or restore wildlife habitats, manage flood risk, create and manage woodland, reduce water pollution from agriculture, preserve the character of the countryside, preserve historical features and improve educational access.
The main elements of the scheme are Mid Tier, Wildlife Offers, Higher Tier, Capital Grants and Woodland support grants. The deadlines for applications vary, with most deadlines set at midnight on 30 July 2021, with the exception of Higher Tier and CS Capital Grants applications which have a deadline of midnight on 30 April 2021. Meanwhile, applications are open year round for the Woodland support grants.
Annual revenue claims can be submitted without reduction until midnight on 17 May 2021. Claims can be submitted after this date until 11 June, but with a reduction.
- The Mid Tier element offers options, supplements and capital items for simple and effective environmental benefits, including measures to improve water quality, but it does not offer grants for woodland or educational access.
- Wildlife Offers help to protect wildlife and preserve the natural environment and the system is designed so these offers can be applied for quickly and simply.
- Higher Tier covers the more ‘environmentally significant sites, commons and woodlands’. The options, supplements and capital items available through the Higher Tier are more complex as a result.
- Capital Grants are available for 67 standalone capital items, categorised within three groups: Boundaries, trees and orchards; water quality, and air quality, where the aim is to protect and enhance the natural environment by increasing biodiversity, boosting habitats and improving water and air quality.
- There are three Woodland support grants; Woodland Creation and Maintenance grant; Woodland Management Plan grant and the Woodland Tree Health grant.
The scheme is open to all farmers, woodland owners, foresters and other land managers and it is suitable for a wide range of land uses, including conventional and organic farmland, coastal areas, uplands and woodland.
However, the scheme is competitively awarded and applications are scored against local priority targets in order to maximise the environmental benefit of the scheme.
Farmers and land managers who are new to taking on environmental work or with expired or expiring Environmental Stewardship agreements can apply for mid-tier, higher-tier, capital grants and woodland support.
Changes for 2022 agreements
For 2022, there are a few changes to the scheme and the application process has been simplified, and there are more options for interventions which can be supported through the scheme.
These changes include:
new options to help improve air quality, water quality and reduce ammonia emissions
improving the capital grant offer, making 67 options available which can sit alongside a wildlife offer
creating new wood pasture options in the uplands, at payment rates suitable for upland application, providing a mosaic habitat of grassland, scrub and trees
making the capital offer available to Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) agreement holders, where the options are compatible
improving woodland options, including bringing bracken control and stone wall options into woodland management and combining Woodland Creation and Woodland Maintenance grants
- increasing the number of capital items that farmers can apply for using the Rural Payments service, covering water capital, hedgerows and boundaries and air quality
- expanding eligibility criteria for the upland option UP2 (management of rough grazing for birds), enabling more land managers to access this option and further improve the upland offer.
Another important change will affect those who are seeking to create new woodland through Countryside Stewardship. If you are in this situation, you are encouraged to apply for the updated Woodland Creation and Maintenance grant which is now open for applications. This offers the same payment rates for the grants, but the applications process for the maintenance element of the grant has changed.
It is also now possible to transfer land parcels and BPS entitlements for 2021 until 17 May using the Rural Payments Service.
A number of other offers have not been renewed and are closed for applications, including the historic buildings restoration grant and the facilitation fund.