Countryside stewardship is an “agri-environmental scheme” currently in place in England.  It allows farmers and land managers to sign up for agreements to receive money in exchange for managing and investing in their land in a way which promotes environmental benefit. It is a varied scheme which covers a wide variety of different activities, and can be tailored to many different types of farm in many different areas of the country. However, this variety also brings complexity, so it is important for potential applicants to know the basics of the scheme.

How does Countryside Stewardship work?

Broadly, Countryside Stewardship offers applicants a selection of land management “options”, with each option having a corresponding “option code”.  Common examples include minimising inputs and grazing on permanent grassland (option “GS2”); limiting the cutting of hedges and ensuring they are properly gapped up (option “BE3”); and establishing a crop designed specifically to provide feeding for target bird species in winter months and leaving it in the ground for a set period of time (option “AB9”). Across the different tiers of Countryside Stewardship, there are a total of 107 different options to choose from although some, such as CT7 (inter tidal or saline habitat creation on intensive grassland) will only apply to land managers in very specific locations or with very specific objectives for their holdings.

Options are paid annually by the amount of each option that is managed. “Amount” here generally refers to area in ha, but sometimes length in metres is used instead, most notably for BE3 hedgerow management and WT3 ditch management. Each option has its own payment value, with the general aim being that options which are more expensive to implement carry a higher payment to offset that cost. For example, GS2 grassland theoretically only requires a reduction in inputs while still permitting the grassland to be used for production, so payment is relatively low at £95/ha. By contrast, AB9 Winter Bird Food requires not only time and money establish a crop, but also prevents production of a saleable product from the land which is managed in this way, so payment is relatively high at £640/ha.

A further distinction can be drawn between “parcel-based” options, which must be claimed in the same location every year, such as GS2 grassland and SW1 buffer strip management, and “rotational options” which can change their location from year to year, such as AB9 winter bird food or AB2 basic overwinter stubble.

As well as land management options, countryside stewardship also includes what are known as “capital items”. The distinction here is that while multi-year options are ongoing payments made annually over a number of years and are claimed during a specific claim period, a capital payment is made only once and can be claimed at any time. This is because a capital payment is made for a specific piece of work, such as re-concreting a yard to minimise runoff of hazardous liquids (RP15), or putting up a stock fence to protect an environmental feature (FG2), rather than an ongoing land management issue.

Finally, we must distinguish between the different types of countryside stewardship scheme. Water capital grants are the most basic form of CS scheme, which can only ever consist of a selection of capital payments up to a combined value of £10,000, with an objective of improving water quality in target areas. There is also mid tier, the most common form of scheme in which applicants choose from a limited, but still wide, selection of options  which, if successful, they can manage with limited direct oversight from the RPA. A subset of mid-tier schemes are the Wildlife Offers, which further limit the availability of options in exchange for a simpler, non-competitive, application process, but are managed in the same way as mid-tier once they are in place. Finally, there is Higher Tier which includes the full suite of options, including the most specialised, so can be more financially lucrative. Higher tier agreements also include the attention of a Natural England Area Team officer who will help to tailor an appropriate suite of options and will visit the holding regularly to advise on management and keep stock of the situation. These schemes are generally most relevant to specialist organisations with a primarily environmental focus such as wildlife charities, or to managers of especially valuable habitats such as SSSIs or designated historic sites. Such groups and individuals will often be invited to apply by Natural England.

Countryside Stewardship also includes a selection of woodland-focused grants. The Woodland Management Plan grant covers only the expenses for creating a management plan for an existing woodland, but does not cover the expenses relating to its implementation. This is useful because having a plan in place allows the forestry commission to issue a licence for up to ten years of felling, so helping an income to be derived from the woodland. There is also the Woodland Creation grant, which aims to cover the initial outlay for planting a woodland, with capital payments for the actual planting of the trees and necessary protection for the new plantation such as deer fencing and tree guards. Once the woodland is in place, the claimant may then be invited to apply for a Woodland Maintenance grant under the higher tier scheme, which will pay at £200/ha of woodland. This grant is only available to previous Woodland Creation claimants. Finally, if your woodland is affected by disease, you may be able to claim a Tree Health Grant for restocking or felling affected trees.

Therefore, we can see that Countryside Stewardship payments can benefit managers of a variety of different types of land with a variety of different outcomes in mind. However, as discussed, the administrative process behind receiving the payment can be as complex as the scheme itself is varied.