Today Natural England Announce changes to Countryside Stewardship for 2018

15th January 2018

We welcome today’s launch of the Countryside Stewardship Scheme for 2018 by Natural England.  The Scheme sees changes to application deadlines, increases in grant funding and, in some cases, a simplified application process for farmers and landowners seeking support for environmental management practices.

“There continue to be two tiers – Higher Tier and Mid-Tier – plus the standalone capital works scheme and the Hedgerows & Boundaries Grant. However, following poor take up in previous years, Natural England have made a number of changes to the Scheme to encourage more applications,” explains David Morley, Head of Conservation and Environment at H&H Land and Property who operate across Cumbria, Durham, north Northumberland and the Scottish Borders.

“Firstly, the application date for the Higher Tier, which targets land that can deliver significant conservation gains, has been brought forward. The scheme is mainly aimed at farms coming out of Higher Level Environmental Stewardship (HLS) agreements and farms with SSSIs, moorland, woodland or other high priority habitats.

“For those interested in Higher Tier, an “Initial Application” needs to be submitted by 13th April 2018, making it a very short application window. Application packs must be ordered by 9th March, so farmers need to take action quickly if they want to apply 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 2019.

“Mid-Tier Stewardship, which aims to deliver environmental gains at a landscape scale across the wider countryside, has suffered low up take in previous years,  so for 2018, Natural England have added four ‘simplified’ offers to target arable farms, lowland livestock farms, upland farms and mixed farms, with the aim of attracting more applications.

“Each of these offers combines a number of specific options into a single “take-it-or-leave-it” package, which aims to deliver wildlife benefits appropriate to that type of farm. There is a simplified application process (online from 20th February in the case of the arable offer) and one major advantage is that these applications will not be subject to competitive scoring and, assuming all the eligibility criteria are met, applicants are guaranteed an agreement.

“However, the detail must be analysed carefully. The options available within each offer are limited and cannot be added to. And you cannot apply for capital works within the simplified offers; anyone wanting to include capital works must make a standard Mid-Tier application. With this added complication to the scheme, it is more critical than ever that potential applicants seek independent advice before deciding how best to apply.

“In addition to the introduction of the new simplified offers, a number of new options have also been added to Mid-Tier,” adds David. “These include “Rough Grazing for Birds” and “Wet Grassland for Breeding Waders”, which were previously only available through Higher Tier. Compared with other grassland options in Mid-Tier, these are high value options at £88 and £264 per ha respectively. Of course, there are strict eligibility criteria to meet and Natural England approval is usually required, but these options could be invaluable for marginal upland and grassland farms where Higher Tier is not possible and Mid-Tier was previously financially unattractive.”

As in previous years, the Mid-Tier continues to offer “Water Capital Grants” for works offering environmental benefits, such as re-concreting yards or covering over silage pits or middens. These grants, which must be endorsed by the local Catchment Sensitive Farming Officer, can be standalone capital works applications, when they are capped at £10,000, or included within a wider Mid-Tier application, when payments are potentially unlimited.

“These grants can make a significant difference to the financial feasibility of improving farm infrastructure,” says David. “Make sure you are aware of the new deadlines – the application window for all Mid Tier applications runs until 31st July 2018, two months earlier than last year, and application packs must be ordered by 31st May. I strongly recommended that applications are not left until the summer, especially if Water Capital Grants are being considered, as research and planning are crucial.”

“For those seeking a standalone capital grant for hedgerow and dry-stone wall restoration, the Hedgerows & Boundaries Grant has increased for 2018 applications – from £5,000 to £10,000 maximum, giving farmers the opportunity to undertake a lot more work through a single agreement. The application window is open until 30th April 2018. Farmers who applied successfully last year can apply again but businesses that have not previously received a grant will be given priority.

“It is encouraging to see Natural England continuing to develop Countryside Stewardship for 2018 applications, and I hope farmers make use of this scheme to invest in their business and future sustainability. I recommend seeking independent advice to ensure what is proposed within your application will fit with your farming system and maximise your funding.”

For further information on the Countryside Stewardship Scheme contact David Morley on 01228 406260 or email info@hhland.co.uk.