Countryside Stewardship agreements provide financial incentives for farmers to look after and improve the environment. Agreements are management by the RPA. There are different grant options within CS, these include Capital Grants, Higher Tier and Mid Tier agreements.
Defra will combine the SFI and CS offer from July 2024. This will allow applicants to select appropriate actions from both schemes. Actions will vary in length from three to five years.
There will be a single online rolling application window for SFI and CS (Mid Tier and Higher Tier) from July for agreements to start from this autumn. This will be a change in approach for CS Higher Tier which previously opened for applications in February. We expect Natural England’s support will be targeted to the actions (options) where their technical expertise is required. The full details of combined offer have still to be worked through, along with the action requirements before the scheme can go live for applications.
For CS Mid Tier, Defra intends to introduce flexibilities such as adding actions or land to new agreements on the agreement’s anniversary. In time, CS Higher Tier agreements will also be able to do the same.
During 2024, the range of available actions will be expanded to more than 180 revenue actions. Around 50 new revenue actions are planned, including actions for agroforestry, boundaries (including stone walls), waterbodies (e.g. restoration of floodplains and rivers), four new precision farming actions, expanding the moorland offer, and an expanded access offer.
There are plans to introduce new capital items and expand the existing offer. Details will be published soon. After 2025 the England Woodland Creation Offer will be integrated into the SFI/CS offer.
A range of existing CS options have been updated. For example:
- The existing woodland management offer has extending eligibility by reducing the threshold for woodland management from 3ha to 0.5ha.
- The grassland habitat options have been made more flexible around when you can cut, top or graze.
- Updating the native breeds at risk supplement to make it more accessible, better suited to different types of land, and update the eligible breeds.
- Updating existing actions and introducing new actions to slow the flow of water and store flood water.
- Introducing a new action for managing a wider area of habitat next to lakes, ponds, rivers and streams.
Farmers within facilitation fund groups are more likely to have an agri-environment agreement.
Defra is looking at expanding the scope of the facilitation fund so more farmers can benefit from being part of a facilitated group, improving administration so there is increased agreement flexibility, and improving access to advice and support farmers may want to receive.
Annual claim payments
On 1 December 2023 the RPA began making CS and ES/HLS annual claim payments. Although the payment window runs until 30 June 2024, the RPA aims to make the payments as promptly as possible, two-thirds of payments have been made so far. Each claim is run through a series of checks by the RPA to validate and verify it – in some cases these checks can take longer than others.
The majority of applicants who made a Higher Tier or Mid Tier application in 2023 will have received an offer. Although some agreement holders won’t yet have a live agreement, the RPA is working to get as many live offers out as soon as possible, this is an improvement in delivery compared with previous years.
Update to T&Cs
On 6 December the RPA contacted all agri-environment agreement holders to inform them about an update to their agreement T&Cs to reflect the end of cross compliance rules on 31 December.
The communication directs agreement holders to GOV.UK webpages which outline what changes have been made to the T&Cs for ES agreement holders: GOV.UK | Environmental Stewardship: terms and conditions, and for CS agreement holders: GOV.UK | Countryside Stewardship: terms and conditions. The T&C changes will remove references to cross compliance rules. Agreement holders must still follow English rules; more detail about the end of cross compliance can be found at: NFU summary: Cross compliance 2023.
CS (Mid Tier and Higher Tier) will move to a rolling application window, with rolling start dates. The full process has still to be determined. Our expectation is that the first applications will start this July with agreements being offered from this autumn, with monthly start dates aligning with SFI.
Applications for CS Higher Tier will therefore move online, replicating the CS Mid Tier approach of 2023. Defra will improve scheme administration so advisors can focus on bespoke support rather than administrative requirements.
Defra may use external advice where this is available to support specific habitats and targets. Again, this process needs to be developed. There are no timelines given for the implementation of these changes.
Countryside Stewardship payment rates changes were announced by the Defra Secretary of State at the Oxford Farming Conference.
These changes result in an average increase of 10% for CS revenue payments (which apply to all agreement holders from 1 January 2024).
For those with existing revenue agreements, the deadline to submit a CS revenue claim without a reduction is 15 May; the deadline to submit a claim with a reduction is 31 August. The RPA will be applying more proportionate late claim reductions to claims received between 15 May and 31 August. The reduction will be scaled according to how late the claim is.
Capital Grant claims can be made at any time of the year if it is:
- within 3 months of the end of your agreement - a late claim reduction will apply if the claim is received between 3 and 6 months
- after the capital work is finished
- after you have been charged or invoiced.
RPA guidance on submitting a claim can be found on: GOV.UK | How to make a capital or revenue claim for Countryside Stewardship.
Capital Grants are available as part of a revenue agreement (Mid Tier or Higher Tier) and/or as a standalone Capital Grant agreement. New agreements have three years to complete the capital works.
Standalone Capital Grants are available with a rolling application window, meaning you can make applications at any time of year.
The Capital Grant 2024 offer provides standalone capital item agreements that deliver environment outcomes within four groups, boundaries, trees and orchards; water quality; air quality; and natural flood management. There is no limit to the value of capital items in these groups. There are 70 options available.
The 2024 Higher Tier capital grant offer provides a selection of specialist Higher Tier capital items to help support environmental benefits for land already in a CS or ES/HLS agreement. There are 20 capital items, with applications open all year.
Land in a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) or Scheduled Monument is now eligible for capital items if the land is already covered by an existing CS or ES/HLS agreement.
You can apply for the capital grants at GOV.UK | Capital Grants 2024.
There are plans to introduce new capital items and expand the existing offer. Details will be published soon.
CS Higher Tier applications for agreements starting on 1 January 2024 are now closed.
We expect future Higher Tier applications to be made through a combined single online application portal from this summer. This will be a change in approach for CS Higher Tier which previously opened for applications in February. We expect Natural England’s support to be targeted to the actions where their technical expertise is required. The full details of the combined offer and application portal have still to be worked through.
High Tier grants go towards supporting areas such as commons and woodlands, and other environmentally significant sites and offers a greater range of grants than Mid Tier.
The application window for MT (Mid Tier) and Wildlife Offer agreements starting on 1 January 2023 is now closed.
There will be a single online rolling application window for SFI and CS (Mid Tier and Higher Tier) from July for agreements to start from this autumn. The full details of the combined offer have still to be worked through, along with the action requirements before the scheme can go live for applications.
Applications for the 2024 round of the CSFF (Countryside Stewardship Facilitation Fund) have now closed.
The CSFF supports individuals who act as facilitators to bring together groups of farmers, foresters, and other land managers to improve environmental outcome themes in their local area. Alongside the existing funding themes (air quality, increasing biodiversity and supporting priority species and water management) a new and welcome theme of net zero has been introduced.
Following NFU lobbying, there are a few other changes to the 2024 round to enable smaller groups to apply and to make some of the administration processes simpler.
Applicants were able to bid for a share of £2.5 million of funding which will be made available over the next three years. Each group could apply for up to £50,000 to deliver improvements.
Since it was established in 2015, the fund has seen around 6,000 farmers and land managers come together in 224 groups across the country. The NFU is pleased to see another round of funding introduced.