This years application window for Countryside Stewardship (CS) is now open. Following on from the lessons learnt last year, there are some common misconceptions around the scheme and what you need to think about if your applying. Here, Natural England break down some of the myths and set the record straight
Myth: Unless my land is a Site of Scientific Special Interest (SSSI) or similar protected area, I’m unlikely to be offered a Countryside Stewardship agreement
This isn’t true. Countryside Stewardship is open to all eligible farmers and land managers, although it is more targeted and competitive than the previous Environmental Stewardship scheme. All applications are assessed under a competitive scoring process, and grants are offered those who will achieve the most for their local environment.
Myth: I need to provide thousands of photos of my land
We’re looking at how the number of photos required can be reduced to the minimum necessary. For capital works you do need a ‘before’ and ‘after’ photograph to demonstrate the item was needed and then delivered. For capital items involving ground works you also need a ‘during’ photograph showing foundations.
For land management options you may need photographs at critical stages to demonstrate that the work has been delivered, but this should not require thousands of photos to be taken.
A proportion of agreement holders will be requested to take photographs as part of an annual sample. They will be given notice of which options require photographs, when they should be taken, and the final date for the return of the records.
Myth: I need to provide daily livestock movement records
If you have grazing management options under your agreement you may be required to keep livestock records. However, parcel level records are only required for a limited number of options. In addition, these records will only be needed when there is a change to the livestock numbers on the parcel of land. A temporary change of livestock numbers (for example, at milking time) does not need to be recorded.
Myth: The woodland schemes are run by Natural England
Countryside Stewardship is an integrated woodland and land management scheme, and the Forestry Commission is running the woodland element of CS. Natural England helps the Forestry Commission process applications and agreements.
Myth: Areas used for Countryside Stewardship can’t be used for ‘greening’ payments
This isn’t true. Land or features can be in CS and also be used to meet greening requirements. Some CS land management options can be combined with greening, for example buffer strips, but the CS payment for these areas is adjusted to avoid “double funding”.
Myth: I’ll have to spend lots of money on soil sampling with no assurance of successfully accessing the scheme
While ‘baseline’ soil sampling is required for some options, Defra and Natural England are currently looking at making changes to when the soil sampling results need to be submitted. This will mean applicants will know they have an agreement before they have to take soil samples. We recognise that regular soil sampling is already a routine for good husbandry reasons, and a requirement for any farms in assurance schemes.
Myth: Applicants aren’t clear about the different CS tiers and how boundary, woodland and other grants sit within the scheme
Countryside Stewardship is an integrated scheme that offers a range of multi-year and capital grants that address different environmental priorities across a variety of farm types.
Scheme option or capital item payment rates are the same when used for Mid, Higher, or capital only grants. The Mid and Higher Tiers offer five year agreements, and have a single application window and annual start date (1 January). They are ‘part farm’ schemes, so applying only involves committing individual land parcels into an agreement, rather than the whole farm. The Mid Tier is focused on environmental improvements in the wider countryside, while Higher Tier specifically focuses on environmentally important sites, including commons and woodlands.
There are also a range of two year capital grants available under CS for things like hedgerows and boundaries and woodland creation. These are available at different times of the year and can be applied for by those considering a mid or higher-tier agreement or anyone whose land is not currently in an Environmental Stewardship or English Woodland Grants Scheme (and who meets the other eligibility requirements).
Natural England and the Forestry Commission have produced a simple infographic illustrating how the different parts of the scheme ‘fit together’, available here.
Myth: I’m more likely to be inspected under CS than I was for Environmental Stewardship
This isn’t true – the inspection requirements are the same for Environmental Stewardship and Countryside Stewardship.
Myth: My Basic Payment Scheme payment will be affected if I’m penalised under CS
The only instance when BPS will be affected from a CS inspection is if cross compliance rules have been breached. Penalties for incorrect CS option measurements or rates will only apply to CS. This was the same for Environmental Stewardship.
Myth: Countryside Stewardship will continue to change and things like record keeping will increase over time (as it did with HLS)
All the requirements of CS have had to be signed off by the RPA and Defra in advance. Record keeping requirements apply in the year that an agreement starts and for the life of an agreement.
If I’m in an agreement, I can be asked to provide retrospective records by the Rural Payments Authority or Natural England
This is true, but this was also the case under Environmental Stewardship. This is because evidence is required to demonstrate that works and management that have been paid for under the schemes have been delivered. In the event of any breach of agreement requirements, keeping records could help you demonstrate compliance in earlier scheme years, therefore limiting any penalties applied.
Myth: CS guidance is too complex
We’ve listened to feedback and have made improvements to CS guidance material this year so customers have better information, available as a PDF, to help them with their agreements. An industry group has reviewed this guidance to make it better focussed on farmers’ and advisers’ needs.