Rural Payments Agency Launches Countryside Stewardship For 2019

19th February 2019

This week marks the launch of the 2019 Countryside Stewardship Scheme by the Rural Payments Agency (RPA), who have taken over administration of the Scheme from Natural England. The Scheme aims to provide financial incentives to farmers, foresters and land managers to look after and improve the environment. The application window is now open for most elements of the Scheme; some have short deadlines, so farmers need to act now if they wish to participate.

Here, David Morley, Head of Conservation and Environment at H&H Land and Property, covers the main points of interest and developments for the new scheme year. While advising there are no fundamental changes to the Scheme design, David highlights the key deadlines that are rapidly approaching:

“As before, there continues to be two tiers, Higher Tier and Mid-Tier, as well as the standalone capital works scheme, the Hedgerows & Boundaries Grant.

The Hedgerows & Boundaries scheme offers standalone capital grants of up to £10,000 for hedgerow and dry-stone wall restoration. Grants are paid at the standard rate of £25 per metre for wall restoration and £9.50 per metre for hedgerow gapping-up.

Applications can be submitted online through Rural Payments. The deadline for applications is 3rd May 2019. Farmers who applied successfully last year can apply again, but businesses that have not previously received a grant will be given priority.

The Mid-Tier scheme offers 5-year agreements, aimed at delivering environmental gains at a landscape scale across the wider countryside. Applications can also include a 2-year capital works programme of hedgerow planting, hedge laying or gapping up, and dry-stone wall restoration. The scheme is intended to be competitive but low take up so far has meant that virtually all applicants have been offered an agreement.”

“In 2018, four simplified Mid-Tier Stewardship offers were launched and targeted at four farm types – specifically Arable Farms, Lowland Livestock Farms, Upland, and Mixed Farms. Then, only the Arable offer was online but this year the application process for all four will be entirely internet-based. This will speed up the procedure and allow the RPA to issue agreement offers more quickly. Unlike other Mid-Tier applications, the Mid-Tier offers are not subject to competitive scoring; applicants are guaranteed an agreement.

The downside to the Simplified Offers is that it is not possible to apply for capital works through the same application. However, you can now apply for a Hedgerows & Boundaries Grant on the same land as a Mid-Tier Offer, which was not possible in 2018. If water capital grants or more than £10,000 worth of boundary restoration are required, you will still need to apply for a standard Mid-Tier agreement.

Water capital grants continue to be available in much of Cumbria for works that offer water quality benefits, such as re-concreting broken yards or covering over silage pits or middens. These can be either standalone capital works applications, which are capped at £10,000, or included within a wider Mid-Tier application, when payments are potentially unlimited. In either case, any application involving water capital grants must be endorsed by the local Natural England Catchment Sensitive Farming Officer.

With so many different ways to apply within Mid-Tier, it is not always straightforward for farmers to decide which is the best way to go; professional advice is essential.

31st May is the deadline to order an application pack for a Mid-Tier agreement, which would start on 1st January 2020. The application window then runs until 31st July 2019. However, for 2019, it will be possible to generate application packs online through Rural Payments. Applications generated this way can be completed on screen and submitted by e-mail, which the RPA have advised will make them much quicker to process.

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.

Higher Tier application packs must be ordered by 31st March 2019, so farmers need to take action quickly if they want to apply. An Initial Application needs to be submitted by 3rd May 2019, making it a very short application window for Higher Tier.

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 2020.

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.

With deadlines for the new 2019 Countryside Stewardship Scheme fast approaching, it is now time to start considering the schemes on offer and which would work best with your farming business”, concludes David.

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