The UK’s departure from the EU has led to a variety of changes to the Countryside Stewardship (CS) scheme. This has brought both limitations and new opportunities, which are important to new applicants and existing agreement holders alike.
New Capital Items
As part of a drive to improve air quality, two new capital items have been added to the Scheme as part of a dedicated air quality grant. These are automated slurry scrapers (funded at £2,760/channel) and new flooring for livestock buildings where this would reduce ammonia emissions (funded at £72/m2). Applicants should remember that these new items, as well as some popular existing capital items such as concrete yard renewal (funded at £27.14/m2) and new livestock troughs (£110 per trough), require the consent of your local catchment-sensitive farming officer. This needs to be requested no less than six weeks before the final submission of the application, so the 18th June at the absolute latest. We would recommend requesting the consent some time earlier to allow time for the application to be adjusted once the consent is received.
More Reasonable Inspection and Penalty System
Previously if a claimant was found to have declared more of an option than was found on the ground at inspection, even if only by a small amount, they could be subjected to a significant penalty on the rest of their claim above the amount they overclaimed. In the worst cases this would both wipe out the entire claim year and be deducted from other claims in the future. This system has now been removed, and the deduction will only be by the value of the overclaim.
The RPA also says they have “changed the focus of Countryside Stewardship inspections for domestic agreements to support the delivery of environmental outcomes”, which presumably means a procedural change of some kind, but it is unclear as yet in what form.
Changes to Maximum Capital Payment Values
Prior to the latest round of applications, capital only agreements were limited to a maximum of £10,000 worth of items, but Mid-Tier agreements could include an unlimited amount of the same items. This meant that putting a single field into a low input grassland option could then allow in excess of £100,000 of grant funding for capital works in some cases.
This has been changed so now capital agreements allow £20,000 of payments each across three different categories, so £60,000 in total. Under Mid-Tier this increases to £50,000 per category so £150,000 per total. The three categories are: improvements to boundaries, water quality and air quality.
This means, in theory, that a Mid-Tier agreement allows only a maximum of £50,000 of capital items for boundary improvement. Water quality items include fencing to protect watercourses in addition to concrete yard renewal and similar items, so may effectively increase the cap. In addition, it is not unusual for a single large farm to fall under several agreements, so applications could be staggered according to when works are required to ensure that grants are still used to their maximum. This does, however, mean that more planning may be need than previously for grants to refence and improve all of the hedges on larger farms.
The increase in capital-only agreement values is more welcome as this will remove the need for some smaller holdings to make management changes they would prefer to avoid in order to access the capital funding they need.
With the reductions to the BPS now clear, we have seen increasing interest in Countryside Stewardship as a means to meet the funding shortfall until ELMS is fully in place, so these and future changes will only become more relevant until the Scheme finally closes for new entries in 2024. We believe that a properly designed CS agreement can be an ideal tool for this, and would urge farmers who have yet to look into the scheme to devote a little time to seeing what might be available to them through it.
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