The NFU is now urging the Government to undertake an urgent review of the scheme’s implementation and to introduce a raft of changes in order to make it more accessible to the industry.
NFU Vice President Guy Smith said: “This scheme is an important tool in enabling farmers to continue to maintain and enhance biodiversity, water, soils and to address future challenges such as climate change and we are very clear - farmers must to be able to continue the very good work that has been achieved in agri-environment schemes.
“However, final application numbers for the scheme have confirmed the poor uptake that we had feared. This is bitterly disappointing especially as we do not believe it is due to lack of interest or engagement from farmers – our survey shows that 93% were aware of the scheme and that 42% looked at it in detail. The new scheme is simply just too complex for many.
“The key issues have included last minute guidance changes and decisions on critical matters such as dual use, poorly drafted guidance and options, burdensome record keeping requirements and a narrow application window during the busiest time in the farming calendar.
“Sadly, we are seeing an increasing amount of disillusionment among our members. The key priority now must be to make the new scheme more accessible than it is currently, particularly for mid-tier applicants, and any changes enabled quickly to give much needed certainty to any prospective applicants.
“Despite the initial problems, the NFU remains committed to working with Defra and Natural England on the scheme’s continued development and implementation and we would like to play an active and positive part in any review.
“Farmers have always been very passionate about their participation in agri-environment and the benefits that these schemes bring to our countryside and we would very much like their involvement and enthusiasm to continue.”
The main findings include:
- There was a high awareness (93%) of the Countryside Stewardship Scheme but issues with scheme design, the guidance and the application process have deterred members from applying;
- Guidance is not user friendly and is insufficient for making decisions and members are considering paying for professional advice (74%);
- Payments are too low compared to what’s being asked for and the associated risks (48% said that joining the scheme would not be worthwhile for their business);
- It is over complicated, bureaucratic and too prescriptive;
- Small farmers and upland farmers are at a disadvantage.