Year-long gap looms in environmental payments to English farms
Date Published: 16/09/2013
Farmers’ work to protect the English countryside faces a massive threat following the revelation that environmental payments are likely to be halted for a year.
Natural England, the body that oversees stewardship payments in the country, has indicated that there will be a gap in the funding between January 2015 and 2016, despite concerns that other EU member states will press ahead with their new schemes as soon as they are able – impacting on the ability of English farms to remain competitive.
Having reviewed recently released papers outlining the plans, assurance specialist, Organic Farmers & Growers (OF&G), has sent an alert to all of the farms certified as organic under its inspection regime, warning them that pressure is building for any new agreements and renewal of existing ones to be submitted, as this must take place by September 1, 2014, because they take three months to process and must be complete by December.
Research and development officer at OF&G, Steven Jacobs, who is also a member of Defra’s OELS options review group, said that the loss of environmental stewardship payments for maybe 12 months or more posed a huge threat to both wildlife and the income streams of many farms, both organic and non-organic.
He explained: “This is not just an issue for organic farmers, it will affect everyone who is being paid under the existing Environmental Stewardship Scheme to enhance the habitats on their land. When margins for many farmers are so thin, this could be catastrophic, though the details have only just been made clear.
“If the payments are lost for a year, you have to ask how many farms will feel confident enough to apply to a new regime later on. There is a large administrative burden to such schemes and if farmers have had to find other ways to survive in the meantime, will they make the effort to get back into the scheme? Natural England have also told me that there is likely to be markedly less funding for stewardship under the new system.
“Our fear is that environmental concerns will have to take a backseat to the very survival of businesses and that is never going to lead to a positive outcome for wildlife and the countryside in general. We’ll also be losing out to our EU cousins, because it is entirely likely that they will continue to get paid for stewardship work in the meantime. Certainly it appears that there will be no funding gap for Wales or Scotland.”
The regime for Environmental Stewardship is changing as a result of the EU-wide discussion on the reform of the Common Agricultural Policy. All new schemes in the EU, such as the UK’s New Environmental Land Management Scheme (NELMS), are due to start 1 Jan, 2015. However, the UK apparently won’t have all of it’s applications in to start on that date, so Defra will instead start on 1 Jan, 2016. It is therefore likely that there will be a funding gap for agreements ending after 1 September, 2014, until Defra begins the new round on 1 January, 2016.
Mr Jacobs added: “We are talking about stewardship agreements numbering more than 16,000 which could be affected, barring those which are in place and will run on through the gap year, so this is potentially a really big deal and we think the excuse from Defra that it can’t be put in place in time in England is, frankly, lame.”
Links to further information from Defra and Natural England: