Why Countryside Stewardship is still a great option for most farmers

Ian Gould, Director at Oakbank Game and Conservation, argues that the current Countryside Stewardship scheme is a good interim measure until the new ELM scheme is fully available.

There have been a number of online meetings and webinars in recent months where farmers have been asked about their current status relating to environmental schemes. Whilst many are already in Countryside Stewardship or perhaps in a long-standing HLS agreement, there have consistently been a large number that have stated they are “waiting for Environmental Land Management (ELM) scheme”.

Whilst the new Environmental Land Management (ELM) scheme may offer growers the promise of a new type of environmental offer, I suspect when we get there it will feel surprisingly familiar despite all the early promises of rewriting the narrative.

As I write this, ELM is expected to be offered to new entrants from 2024 with some further testing and a pilot roll-out still to happen. These schemes do not have a great track record of being delivered on time, so with the ready-made excuses of Covid-19 and Brexit do not be too surprised to see the actual launch date slip by a year or more. Personally, I would prefer to see them launch ELM only when it is ready and tested properly, rather than rushing it out and have it landing badly with farmers. The existing Countryside Stewardship (CS) scheme is a perfectly serviceable interim measure, that maintains the delivery of existing habitats and other benefits, whilst also offering new entrants a stepping-stone into the world of ELM without penalty once the new scheme is ready to go. It has been mentioned that having a history of involvement with similar schemes will count in your favour if ELM becomes competitive.

So why should farmers and landowners consider starting a new CS agreement in the meantime? Well there are many benefits that can be gained from a well-conceived scheme for both the farm financials and environment. At Oakbank, we would first start with a walkover of the farm to identify the natural capital that you already have, looking for opportunities to retain, protect, improve, possibly extend and hopefully connect these features. It is remarkable how a fresh set of experienced eyes can shed new light on somewhere that has often been someone’s home for several decades.

Clearly, the landowner may have some initial ideas for what they want to see from the scheme and these will also be built into the plan. These may include removing some areas of land from production, improving high value habitats, protecting watercourses or working on the soil health. There are a wide range of options that can help with these objectives, but take advice and choose well.

There is nothing to lose from getting into a CS mid-tier scheme at this point and they can certainly offer some useful income from marginal areas of the farm. It is a good introduction to the world of natural capital too and that is likely to become increasingly important over the next few years.

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