As part of our transition to environmental land management, we announced that we would evolve Countryside Stewardship.
Countryside Stewardship (CS) provides financial incentives for farmers, foresters and land managers to look after and improve the environment. Through the scheme, thousands of farmers are being paid for the valuable work they do.
In this post, we’ll give you a refresher, share some facts and figures and explain how you can get involved.
Countryside Stewardship: an overview
The main offers in CS are:
Higher Tier grants are offered for multi-year management options and capital items for the most environmentally important sites. These include commons and woodlands. They are usually in places that need complex management. For example, creating or restoring habitats and improving woodland.
There’s still time to apply for a CS Higher Tier agreement for 2024. We'll accept applications until 28 April 2023.
The aim of Mid Tier is to protect and enhance the natural environment through multi-year management and capital grants. They are improve the diversity of wildlife, water quality, air quality and natural flood management. Wildlife Offers are part of Mid Tier and provide a simpler set of options to help improve wildlife in 4 different farming types.
The application window for CS Mid Tier and Wildlife Offer agreements, to start from 1 January 2024, is open until 18 August 2023.
Capital Grants are 3-year agreements offering capital items to achieve specific environmental benefits. We've introduced Higher Tier Capital Grants which offer capital items to achieve additional environmental benefits alongside existing Higher Tier agreements.
Applications for capital grants are open all year round.
The Facilitation Fund brings together groups of people who collaborate to improve environmental outcomes in their local area.
The application period closed 25 January 2023. June 1 is the start date for CS Facilitation Fund 2023 agreements applied for in 2022/23.
The popularity of Countryside Stewardship
Participation in Countryside Stewardship has grown in recent years. In January 2023, there were around 32,000 CS agreements, a 94% increase from 2020.
The most popular element of CS is Mid Tier which, including the Wildlife Offers, accounts for around 87% of all CS agreements.
There are also 2,700 Higher Tier and 1,500 Higher Tier Woodland agreements, which deliver on the most environmentally significant sites.
The graph below shows the number of CS agreements from 2018.
There is good uptake across England. The highest number of agreements are found in Devon, East Anglia and North Yorkshire.
CS provides annual payments for a wide range of activities on different land types, supporting the conservation and restoration of habitat and protecting the historic environment, as well as improving air and water quality.
Many of the most popular revenue options focus on improving biodiversity. The following options appear in over 5,000 live agreements:
- CS Option GS2: Management of permanent grassland with very low inputs outside severely disadvantaged areas (SDAs). An option which provides nectar and shelter for invertebrates and an increased food supply for birds. There are currently 247,000 hectares (ha) in this option.
- CS Option BE3: Management of Hedgerows. In which hedges are managed to increase the availability of blossom for invertebrates and food is provided for overwintering birds. This option also helps maintain hedgerows as distinctive and historic landscape features. There are currently 52,800km of hedgerow in this option, representing one side of the hedge.
- CS Option AB9: Winter bird food. This provides important food resources for farmland birds, especially in autumn and winter. This option also benefits insects including bumblebees, solitary bees, butterflies and hoverflies. There are currently 44,000ha in this option.
- CS Option SW1: 4-6 meter buffer strips on cultivated land. This provides habitat for wildlife and can form links or corridors between other habitats. Next to a watercourse, this option also prevents pollutants, such as sediment and nutrients, from being transported in surface water runoff. There are currently 16,000ha in this option.
- CS Option AB8: Flower-rich margins and plots. This option provides important habitat and foraging sites for invertebrates, including wild pollinators such as bumblebees, solitary bees, butterflies and hoverflies, and farmland birds including the yellowhammer. There are currently 32,000ha in this option.
- CS Option GS1: Taking small areas out of management on grassland. This provides year-round habitat and food for a range of wildlife within grass fields. There are currently 2,300ha is this option.
Capital grants are also an important element of CS. 64% of Mid Tier and Higher Tier revenue agreements contain at least one capital item. Popular capital items include:
- fencing (CS Option FG1) and sheep netting (CS Option FG2), used to protect habitat or environmental features, support grazing options and prevent water pollution.
- items linked to preventing diffuse water pollution, such as concrete yard renewal (CS Option RP15) and roofing (CS Option RP28), used to prevent rainfall getting into areas of a farm such as sprayer washdown areas, manure storage areas, livestock gathering areas, slurry stores and silage stores.
- items to create and restore hedgerows, such as planting new hedges (CS Option BN11), hedgerow gapping up (CS Option BN7) and hedgerow coppicing (CS Option BN6).
- stone wall restoration (CS Option BN12, along with supplements BN13, BN14, BN15), which is important to conserve traditional landscapes, notably in the uplands.
- major preparatory works for priority habitats and species (CS Option FM2), designed to support large scale restoration and creation of priority habitats and bespoke management for priority species for Higher Tier agreements.
There are also currently 1,500 capital-only agreements. The majority of these are for Woodland Management Plans.
You can search for options, supplements and capital items to include in your Countryside Stewardship application using the Countryside Stewardship grant finder on GOV.UK
Delivering for the environment
Countryside Stewardship supports the government's 25 Year Environment Plan. It also supports Defra’s strategic objective of ‘a cleaner, healthier environment, benefitting people and the economy’.
There are 2,307,258ha of mapped priority habitats in England, with around 46% of mapped priority habitats in an agri-environment or woodland scheme. For example:
- 23% of England's upland heathland is under a CS agreement, with a further 45% in Environmental Stewardship (ES). This represents a total of approximately 160,000ha under agreement.
- 28% of lowland meadows are in CS, with a further 38% in ES, giving a total of just over 17,500ha under agreement.
- 25% of blanket bog is in CS, with a further 43% in ES, giving a total of approximately 164,000ha under agreement
The Natural England-led Agri-Environment Evidence Programme seeks to monitor and evaluate existing agri-environment schemes, including CS. The majority of CS scheme options are well-located and well-implemented. Under the following themes, we also found:
The placement and choice of options were generally aligned with appropriate habitats and features. There’s opportunity to further target Mid Tier agreements to provide additional benefit to biodiversity.
Climate change adaptation and mitigation
CS appears to perform well in identifying and managing highly climate-vulnerable features. As a whole, Mid Tier and Higher Tier schemes resulted in reductions in GHG (greenhouse gas emissions), with the majority of emission reductions arising from a few options with high coverage. There’s further scope for CS options to contribute to climate change adaptation through restoration or the creation of priority habitats.
Protection of resources (for example, water and soil)
Appropriate selection of options and capital items was identified in approximately half of agreements. There is scope for greater use of capital items supporting water quality and mitigating flood risk.
Historic Environment (HE) options were considered to be implemented well. Options were more likely to be conserving or maintaining historic features, with only 6% assessed as enhancing feature condition. Non-HE specific options, for example, those for grasslands, and buffer strips, generally had a neutral or positive impact on historic features.
Generally, options were assessed to be having a positive impact —enhancing, conserving, maintaining — on landscape character.
Countryside Stewardship Facilitation Fund (CSFF)
Groups were found to positively contribute to maintaining, enhancing and creating Natural Capital through the application of CS options, delivering additional positive effects beyond that which would be achieved by individual holdings. CSFFs also promoted trust between members and improving social connection between the people taking part.
To find out more about these and other findings, visit the Natural England Access to Evidence site
Learn more and apply
If you’re interested in applying, you can find out more in the Countryside Stewardship guidance on GOV.UK.
As mentioned, applications for Mid Tier and Wildlife Offers, Higher Tier and Capital Only grants are all now open.
Evolving our environmental land management offer
We’ll evolve our land management schemes in the coming years to improve how they work for farmers and to deliver more for the environment.
This will include introducing additional actions, improved access for tenant farmers and increased access to Higher Tier options.
We’ll also introduce Countryside Stewardship Plus to encourage the right things to happen in the right places, enable local join-up to deliver bigger and better results and facilitate testing of innovative payment mechanisms, including payment by results.
If you have any questions for the team, comment below.