Since 2015 landowners who wished to carry out environmental stewardship have had to apply for competitive agreements (i.e. limited funding available and only applicants that best met the priorities would be granted agreements) mainly through the Mid Tier Countryside Stewardship Scheme (CSS) which replaced the Entry Level Stewardship (ELS) scheme. The ELS scheme was non-competitive and was based on a points system of achieving 30 points per hectare across your entire holding, which equated to a payment of £30 per hectare. If an applicant reached the required number of points with eligible options, they were automatically entered into an ELS scheme which lasted for five years, receiving an annual payment. This was a popular scheme and the early CSS did not attract the same number of applicants. The Government now appears to be making a return to the old ELS type of agreement with the new CSS Wildlife Offers.
Like the ELS agreements, the new Wildlife Offers are non-competitive and are tailored to the different land types across the UK. ELS allowed landowners to pick the most suitable options for their land types and farming businesses, whilst providing environmental and landscape features. Although the Wildlife Offers have a limited number of options available, and there are a number of mandatory options that must be taken, there is no maximum to the number of options that can be chosen on an application, or the amount of area that can be entered into an agreement, subject to individual option restrictions. Therefore there is scope to make more money per hectare than under ELS. The options are based on the CSS Mid Tier options that were available for the previous three rounds of CSS, and can provide a high payment rate per hectare. For example option AB9 “Winter Bird Food” pays £640 per hectare. This, combined with no maximum area for each option, means that landowners could receive much higher annual payments from the CSS Wildlife Offer than the ELS. These Offers provide landowners with an opportunity to receive a regular fixed income at a time when BPS and other factors within the farming industry are so volatile.
To give an example of the increase in payments applicants to the new Wildlife Offers should receive, one of our clients who made a Mid Tier application last year on a circa 57 hectares lowland grass farm, had previously been receiving £1,692 per year from their ELS agreement. With only slight changes to their farming practices, and selecting similar options through either a Wildlife Offer or a Mid Tier application, the same land could be eligible for a payment of £2,502.70. The Wildlife Offers are expected to be preferred to Mid Tier, being simpler and also non-competitive, but this is an example of generally what can be higher payments as there are no points target or maximum areas on either of these schemes, as there was with the old ELS.
The new CSS Wildlife Offers are outlined below and see here.
The online arable agreement will have eleven arable options to choose from, and applicants must pick at least one option from each of the three different categories, and a minimum of 3% of the farmed land under the applicant’s management must be placed within the scheme. There is no maximum number of options that can be used, and the agreements last for five years. The categories are: 1 – Nectar and pollen sources for insect pollinators and insect-rich foraging for birds per hectare (min 1 ha per 100 ha of farmed land included in the agreement, no max), giving options of £511-£539/ha; 2 – Winter food for seed-eating birds (min 2 ha per 100 ha farmed land included in the agreement, no max) £640/ha; and 3 – Additional resources & habitats (no min or max, apart from individual option requirements), giving options ranging from £8/100m of managed hedgerow to £532/ha for cultivated areas for arable plants.
The lowland grazing agreement has seven options to choose from which are divided into three categories. Applicants must pick at least one option from category 1, and one from category 2. Further options can be selected, and the agreements last for five years. The categories are: 1 – Nectar and pollen sources for insect pollinators and insect-rich foraging for birds (min 2 ha per 100 ha of farmed land included in the agreement, no max), giving options of £95-£309/ha; 2 – Nesting and shelter for insect pollinators and birds (min 500m of BE3 or 1 ha of GS1 per 100 ha farmed land included in the agreement, no max), giving options ranging from £8/100m of managed hedgerows to £365/ha for taking field corners out of production (outside SDA); and 3 – Optional additional resources and habitats (no min or max, apart from individual option requirements), giving options of £44-£331/ha.
The upland agreement gives applicants four base options to choose from, plus additional supplemental options as well. As a minimum applicants must take up either one base option and two supplemental options, or two base options and one supplemental option. The base options range from £8/100m of managed hedgerows, to £88/ha for management of rough grazing for birds. The supplemental options can give £44-£85/ha.
The mixed farming agreement has three categories with fourteen options to choose from and applicants must pick a minimum of one option from each category, with no maximum. The categories are: 1 – Nectar and pollen sources for insect pollinators and insect-rich foraging for birds (min 1 ha per 100 ha of farmed land included in the agreement for AB1 and AB8; 2ha for GS4. No max), giving options £309-£511/ha; 2 – Winter food for seed-eating birds (min 2 ha per 100 ha farmed land included in the agreement, no max), giving £640/ha; 3 – Additional resources and habitats (no min or max, apart from individual option requirements), giving options ranging from £8/100m of managed hedgerows to £532/ha for cultivated areas for arable plants.
ORGANIC WILDLIFE OFFERS
The agreement booklet for the new CSS Wildlife Offers states that the agreements are open to organic farmers. However we note the Arable Offer and the Mixed Farming Offer require a mandatory option (AB9 Winter Bird Food) to be included as part of the application, and option AB9 cannot be placed on land which is organic or is in the process of organic conversion. Therefore two out of the four Wildlife Offers are not available to organic farmers. This issue has been raised with Natural England and DEFRA, however they have stated there are not going to be any changes to the offers at the moment. This means that a large number of organic farmers will be forced to apply to Higher or Mid Tier if they wish to enter a CSS agreement, which is competitive, unlike the Wildlife Offers.
BUDGET FOR COUNTRYSIDE STEWARDSHIP INCLUDING WILDLIFE OFFERS
In 2015 & 2016 Natural England did not receive enough Mid Tier applications for the money that was allocated to them as the scheme was not popular, so most who applied were successful. In the 2015 application window (for a 1st January 2016 start date), 89.69% (2,115 applicants) of the applications submitted were offered an agreement, with a small number of the unsuccessful applications being due to the forms being completed incorrectly. Only 1,894 applicants accepted the agreements they were offered. In the 2016 application window (for a 1st January 2017 start date) 91.37% (3,424 applicants) of applicants were offered agreements. Only 3,335 applicants accepted the agreements they were offered.
In 2017 (for a 1st January 2018 start date) confidence in the scheme had increased, and there was a risk there could have been more applications than funding available, and therefore a chance that the Scheme for the first time would be really competitive. The indicators are now that this was not the case with predicted figures for applications once again well below the funding that was available. The introduction of the new Wildlife Offers may reduce the number of applicants for the Mid Tier even further, as applicants may prefer to opt for this new non-competitive option. However Wildlife Offers and Mid Tier applications are taken from the same funding “pot”, and if there is a very good uptake of Wildlife Offers there could still be a risk that Mid Tier applications would become more competitive if the “pot” turns out not to be big enough for both.