The natural environment and the wildlife depending on it are at risk due to the failure of the Government’s Countryside Stewardship scheme to attract applications, says the membership organisation for landowners and farmers.
The CLA gave the warning today in response to reports that between 2000 to 3000 land managers have applied to start new agreements to deliver environmental measures under the Mid-Tier level of the new scheme in 2016. More than 11,000 agreements of a comparable level under the existing scheme are expiring in 2015.
The schemes provide payments to enable land managers to undertake work protecting and improving the environment. The CLA says that Defra and Natural England’s introduction of the new scheme, and its onerous requirements, have discouraged landowners from participating. It is calling for comprehensive revision of the scheme for next year.
CLA President Henry Robinson said: “Landowners and farmers want to protect and improve the environment, and we want the new Countryside Stewardship scheme to succeed. Up until this point around 70% of English agricultural land has been covered by an environmental stewardship agreement. However the chaos of the new scheme’s introduction and the complexity of its requirements have put land managers off participating next year.
“During the application window our members reported strong reservations about the continued delays in providing important information from Defra and Natural England, the overly burdensome reporting requirements and the inflexible way in which the scheme is being managed.
“We have been warning the Government for months, but they failed to take the swift and decisive action that was required to salvage the scheme. England’s natural environment and wildlife will pay the price. This is a big step backwards in our efforts to improve the environmental management of our landscapes.”
Mr Robinson added: “The new Countryside Stewardship scheme is supposed to simplify Government input and deliver better results for the environment. However environmental benefits built up through 10 years of investment into environmental schemes could be lost very quickly if Government makes it too difficult for farmers and landowners to maintain their work.
“Defra must now enter into open discussion with land managers to ensure that next year’s scheme is much improved both in terms of being viable for applicants and also delivering the best environmental benefits.”
The Countryside Stewardship scheme is a rebranded and restructured version of existing stewardship agreements that come to an end in 2016. Applications for Mid-Tier agreements closed on 30th September and applications for Higher-Tier agreements will close at the end of October. Whilst reports currently state that between 2000-3000 applications for Mid-Tier agreements have been received, the number of agreements offered is expected to be far lower due to the competitive computerised scoring process.