The new simplified wildlife offers under Countryside Stewardship give farmers an opportunity to sign up to a less complicated form of the scheme, but land managers should still consider whether a full Mid-Tier agreement would be more beneficial, according to Strutt & Parker.
The government has introduced four new streamlined packages of options, tailored around different farm types, in a bid to open up the scheme to more farmers and landowners.
Farmers have been invited to apply for application packs for either an arable, lowland grazing, mixed farming or upland offer.
Under these wildlife offers, farmers are required to pick from a short pick-and-mix menu of prescribed management options.
“The launch of the simplified wildlife offers is a step forward in that it is an acknowledgement that many farmers have been put off Mid- and Higher-Tier agreements because of the increased amount of paperwork, evidence and effort spent bringing an application together,” said Strutt & Parker farming consultant Charles Garrard.
“The most significant point in favour of the simplified offers is that they are non-competitive, meaning that anyone who puts together an eligible application will have it accepted. That said, it is worth noting that while Mid-Tier CSS is a competitive scheme, to date, the level of uptake has been sufficiently low that over 90% of all applications have been approved by Natural England.
“The simplified offers will also be appealing to farmers who can’t face trawling through multiple guidance booklets, as the agreements can be put together based on just a handful of management options, without the need to submit photos or additional evidence with the application.”
But Mr Garrard added: “However, the government looks to be pinning its hopes on the fact that the scheme will appeal to farmers who were previously part of the Entry Level Stewardship Scheme and, in that sense, it may find its new offers fall short.
“Unlike ELS, there is still the set application window, which still doesn’t offer farmers the flexibility to apply throughout the year. That being said, it has been moved from the March to September slot, which clashed with the spring workload and harvest, to between early January and 31 July.
“The design of the new offers and options appear to mirror the Wildlife Pollinator and Farm Wildlife element of the existing Mid-Tier scheme. However, we know through experience that this is not always the easiest to qualify for – particularly for those larger farmers trying to meet the 3% minimum area commitment for winter food for seed-eating birds and nectar sources.
“The relatively small number of management options available means that the offers are actually quite rigid, which could prove a barrier for some farmers who wish to diversify their on-farm options. For example, under the arable package, all farmers will be required to provide winter food for birds through the AB9 option which involves establishing a seed mix of cereals, brassicas and other plants which produce small edible seeds.
“However, under a standard Mid-Tier agreement, farmers are offered alternative options for providing winter bird food, such as basic and enhanced overwinter stubbles (AB2 and AB6), which are straightforward to implement and manage, while offering a reasonable financial return.”
Mr Garrard said the first stage of looking into an application should be to sit down with members of the team that know the farm inside-out, identify the less productive areas on the holding and look at the options available under these schemes.
“There is still the opportunity to combine options to increase revenue under these new offers. There are several option pairings, which if used correctly, can produce a gross margin per hectare better than that of an average yielding wheat crop, as well as many break crops, at today’s prices – an effective strategy for providing de-risked income.
“Ultimately, farmers will need to weigh up whether the simplicity of the new simplified offers are more important to them than the increased choice and flexibility provided by a standard Mid-Tier agreement.”
Farmers can currently apply for the Higher-Tier, Mid-Tier or the new wildlife offers under the Countryside Stewardship Scheme.