Katie Hilton, Associate at Cheffins says:
“With the budget availability for Countryside Stewardship being ramped up over the next couple of years, farmers have a great opportunity to try out a wide range of environmental options in readiness for the Environmental Land Management (ELM) scheme coming onstream in 2024/25. Additionally, with new CS agreements featuring a break clause to allow farmers to switch over to ELM before their five-year term is up, there really isn’t a reason to miss out.
The following list of practical tips to avoid common pitfalls when applying for Countryside Stewardship may look like something of a maze but really it just requires attention to detail and thorough background reading in the same way one would do when signing up to any contract. Experience suggests that when an applicant arms themselves with the knowledge required to implement a scheme well, it turns out to be a much more successful and fulfilling endeavour.
- Check that the Countryside Stewardship (CS) options you choose are compatible with the land use of the field parcel. Some CS options can only be put on arable land and some only on permanent grassland. When your application is submitted the RPA will check compatibility against the land use codes that are declared on your Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) and held on your Rural Payments account. This information can be found under the individual description for each CS option at the Grants Finder https://www.gov.uk/countryside-stewardship-grants?keywords=&grant_type%5B%5D=capital-item.
- If your application includes options marked as ‘rotational’ this means they can move from one place to another during the course of the five-year agreement. Make sure you include in your application all field parcels that you might want to place these options on. If you have excluded a field that you absolutely needed to move your plot of AB15 Two-year legume mix to, for example, the RPA are very unlikely to add that field into your agreement at a later date and this will thwart your plans. You might decide, however, that your rotational options should stay in the same place for the full five years, which is fine.
- Similarly, only include the field parcels that you need to in any one CS agreement. This may free up other parts of the farm to be entered into a separate Mid-Tier agreement at a later date if you so wish. The ideas of a farm business tend to change over time and this approach could give you the freedom to initiate other CS options, later on under a separate CS agreement, that you didn’t previously think you wanted to try.
- Be sure that you can provide the same amount of a particular option every year for the full five-year term. In signing up for a CS agreement you are committing to the same level of delivery each year for annual options such as AB2 Overwinter stubble. This requires thought as to whether the farm’s rotation will allow for, say, 20 hectares of overwintered stubbles every year or whether the amount of spring cropped land will fluctuate to make this option unfeasible.
- Check to see whether your farm falls within a CS High Priority area for water quality. If so, this will enable you to enlist the free expertise of a Catchment Sensitive Farming Officer (CSFO) and it will classify you as eligible to apply for additional CS options such as concrete yards, hardcore tracks, sprayer washdown areas and more. Whilst the uptake of these capital options do require the approval of your CSFO, they can be well worth pursuing and not all farmers and landowners are aware that their water catchment area is considered ‘high priority’.
- Many capital options such as hedge planting, hedge coppicing, hardcore tracks and field gates require ‘before’ and ‘after’ photographs to be taken and kept on record. Always remember to check the small print early and find out whether the option you have applied for requires photographs. Clearly, it is not going to be possible to take a ‘before’ photograph of the location of your new hedge if you have planted it before realising this is necessary. It is therefore a good idea to be organised, take photographs and store them electronically in a logical sequence. This way, in the event of an inspection you will be able to quickly and easily access the correct photographs.
- Following on from the previous point, once you have an agreement in place it is important to know what kind of evidence will be expected upon submission of your payment claim to the RPA for capital works. Capital claims are submitted electronically via the Rural Payments system and it is not always made obvious that photographs will need to be emailed separately to the RPA in support of your claim. Again, read the small print contained in your agreement and submit an email containing photographic evidence, eg a photo of a length of hedge planting, at the same time as submitting your claim. Be sure to include your SBI number and capital claim reference number in the email to enable the RPA to marry up the two. This should avoid unnecessary delays to your payment.
- A relatively simple CS agreement can often be the best approach provided it offers a balance of year-round provision for your farmland birds and pollinators. Keeping track of the management requirements of lots of different option types can be challenging. Fewer options, managed well, can provide the best outcomes for wildlife and can be more economical to implement than a complicated scheme.”