** Under review following the outcome of the EU Referendum (June 2016) **
The last Rural Development Programme (RDP), including Entry Level (ELS) and Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) Agri-Environment Schemes, came to an end in 2013 and the new Programme will not commence until January 2015.
2014 is being treated as a ‘transitional’ period, as Defra design the next suite of agri-environment schemes, in accordance with changing regulation and budgets resulting from Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) Reform.
As a result, Defra have had to put in place a unique set of rules for 2014, limiting the availability of new agreements, along with amendments to current schemes.
- Existing agreements starting during or before 2013 which run into the new CAP period will continue to be funded. This includes Countryside Stewardship Schemes (CSS), Environmentally Sensitive Area (ESA), Entry Level Stewardship (ELS) and Higher Level Stewardship (HLS).
- Approximately £26 million will be available for new HLS agreements, where classic agreements (CSS and ESA) are expiring in 2014. HLS will only be offered to expiring classics for high priority cases, such as SSSI, or those meeting Water Framework Directive objectives.
- Approximately £4 million will be available for new/renewed ELS agreements, but only where they are underpinning HLS, are in the uplands (UELS), are organic (OELS), or contain land coming out of classic agreements which are not selected for HLS.
- There will therefore be no ELS renewals or new ELS schemes available in 2014 to those farming in lowland areas, who do not have an expiring classic agreement and are not organic.
- Up to £14 million will be available for Catchment Sensitive Farming (CSF) advice and capital grants to tackle diffuse water pollution.
Further information on the 2014 transition rules can be found here.
Similarly the rules for transfers and amendments under agri-environment schemes are affected in 2014, as the EU provisions for land transfer and amendments expired in December 2013.
New environmental land management scheme – NELMS
The new programme of agri-environment is due to start in 2015, at which point applications can be put together. however due to a move to annual agreement start dates of 1 January each year, the next available agreement start date will not be until 1 January 2016. The next suite of agri-environment schemes are currently referred to as NELMs, but this is a working title.
The main policy drivers for NELMS are Biodiversity 2020 goals and Water Framework Directive obligations, but NELMS will still target other themes such as historic environment and educational access.
The scheme design is still under development and the finer details not yet apparent, but the following structure is currently envisaged.
NELMS will be one scheme with one set of options, which combines the current Environmental Stewardship (ELS & HLS) options and the English Woodland Grant Scheme (EWGS). It will contain a single “menu” of options (i.e. no uplands or organic strands) to which agreement holders would have variable access to meet either ‘higher tier’/‘site specific’ or ‘mid tier’/‘landscape specific’ objectives.
‘Site specific’ agreements will be more targeted and have been described as HLS+. They will be designed to provide for designated and protected sites such as SSSI or other sites deemed to be of very high priority or complexity. Entry to the site specific offer will be mostly by invitation from Natural England (NE) and it is estimated that more than 90% of these would be with either existing customers or land known to NE. Defra anticipate that current HLS agreement holders will be considered for the upper tier.
The ‘landscape specific’ agreements tier will likely be pitched between the current ELS and HLS (i.e. ELS+). A range of entry points would be offered to the applicant, i.e. they can build on their scheme according to their aspirations, effectively ending the current points system.
There will be no advice for the mid tier and all applications will need to be made online, therefore targeting and eligibility must be simple.
Agreements will last for 5 years, with possible extensions for the higher tier.
Capital items will be available for both the mid and higher tier agreements, and in addition a capital grants scheme will also be available outside the mid and higher tiers. This will allow farmers to apply solely for capital items on an annual basis.