New environmental payments ‘must be much more accessible’

Picture: Tony Johnson
Picture: Tony Johnson
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A MORE workable way of paying farmers to deliver sought-after wildlife and biodiversity measures on their land must be achieved because the first year of a new scheme has been “beset” by problems, the National Farmers’ Union said.

Yorkshire farmers are being asked to share their experiences of the new Countryside Stewardship agri-environment scheme at a series of meetings held by the union over the coming week. Feedback will be used to inform the NFU’s recommendations to Natural England which runs the scheme jointly with the Forestry Commission and the Rural Payments Agency (RPA) on behalf of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

Since it replaced ‘Environmental Stewardship’ earlier this year much of the detail as to how farmers can access the £900m scheme has been slow to materialise. Applications opened at the start of July but the full terms and conditions were only published in mid-July.

It compounded the difficulties facing farmers trying to access to revised European subsidy payments following the failure of the RPA’s online-only application process for the new ‘Basic Payment Scheme’.

James Copeland, the NFU’s regional environment and land use adviser, said: “As a result it has been especially difficult for farmers to access the new scheme, with a lack of information and guidance on what they needed to do and the criteria they needed to meet.

“Problems have continued with some farmers - especially hill farmers and those with common land - finding it almost impossible to gain access. For a region with such a high proportion of hill farmers and a lot of commoners too, this is especially worrying.”

Countryside Stewardship was launched this year as a replacement for ‘Environmental Stewardship’ Entry and Higher Level schemes that for the last ten years have encouraged farmers to introduce key measures to benefit wildlife and biodiversity across 70 per cent of English farmland.

The main priority for the new Countryside Stewardship scheme is to deliver improvements to farmland to protect and enhance the natural environment, in particular the diversity of wildlife and water quality.

But farmers have been left frustrated by their attempts to get to grips with how it works and so the NFU is holding four meetings with farmers to help the union respond robustly to Natural England on the back of this year’s experiences.

Mr Copeland added: “The aim is to outline the work undertaken by the NFU this year, get feedback from local farmers on their experience of the new scheme and outline some the requested changes likely to be included in the NFU’s submission to Natural England.

“Given the importance of agri-environment payments to many farms, we are keen to ensure that the process is as easy as possible next year.”

The NFU’s national countryside adviser Claire Robinson will attend each of the meetings which will take place on September 30 at Hexham Mart at 10am; The Jersey Farm, Barnard Castle at 1.30pm; and the North York Moors Visitor Centre in Danby, near Whitby at 7pm; and on October 1 at The Bridge, Walshford, Wetherby at 10am.

To book a place, call the NFU on 01904 451550.