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Changes to Countryside Stewardship and BPS explained

Tue 20 April 2021

With the 17th May deadline for Basic Payment Scheme applications fast approaching, there are some changes to the 2021 scheme due to the UKs exit from the EU, that applicants should be aware of. The permanent removal of the three previous greening requirements (crop diversification, Ecological Focus Areas and greening permanent grassland) for 2021 onwards, is a major simplification of the current scheme. However, the removal of the greening requirements will not reduce the total payments received as this will now be included in the value paid for each entitlement held.  The rules around usage of entitlements have also changed with the removal of the two year ‘use it or lose it’ rule. The 2021 scheme year will see the first payment reductions in line with the phasing out of the Basic Payment Scheme. Payments have been split into bands, like with income tax, higher bands receive higher reductions. In 2021, all applicants will receive a 5% reduction on the first £30,000 of their payment.

For Countryside Stewardship agreements starting on, or after 1st January 2021, there are some changes to the traditional rules. Agreement holders are no longer at risk of being ‘inspected’, instead they could be subject to an ‘environmental outcome site visit’ which will look at the whole agreement or a set of campaign options which will be chosen each year. For 2021, the campaign options include the popular options GS1 (take field corners out of management) and GS2 (permanent grassland with very low inputs – outside SDAs). GS2 has been included as there has been a very high uptake in the past, coupled with a high rate of agreement holders failing to comply with the requirements. Failure to comply with the management aims of an option could lead to all of the options in an agreement being checked. Agreement holders need to remain aware of the management requirements for each option and ensure that they continue to follow them along with compiling any necessary supporting records or documents. Under the new system, breaches will not automatically lead to penalties but the focus will instead be on inspectors offering advice and guidance to help agreement holders to fix any issues. Those with an agreement starting on, or after 1st January 2021, should check the prescriptions for each of their chosen options as some have been reworded to make the overall aims clearer and less prescriptive. These updated options include a section describing what the habitat should look like throughout the year, so whilst agreement holders will be able to better understand what is expected of them, it will be easier for inspectors to assess whether they are complying.  However, as always, it is ultimately down to the agreement holder so it pays to remain familiar with the options and ensure that anyone else managing the land understands the requirements too. The RPA are reviewing the current prescriptions for the Countryside Stewardship Mid Tier Options, which means that the revenue options are likely to look different from 2022.

Further details of the new Environmental Land Management schemes are still to be released but it is promising to see that pilots for the Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) will start in 2021, with the scheme starting to be rolled out in 2022 to those who currently receive BPS payments. The initial scheme will be based on a core set of sustainable farming actions with the range on offer being increased incrementally. By 2024 it is envisaged that the scheme will start to be fully expanded and will be available to all farmers and landowners. The RPA has said that it plans to ‘learn on the job’ by working with farmers and land managers to evolve and improve the scheme during its rollout. The initial scheme will use the RPA’s existing online systems which should help to prevent some teething issues. During the transition from BPS to SFI, the RPA is encouraging farmers and land managers to consider entering into a Countryside Stewardship scheme in order to supplement their income. Any agreements entered into from 2021 can be ended early in order to transition to a new ELMs scheme. Whilst this would provide additional income, farmers and land managers should carefully consider the effect of these schemes on their farming practices and whether the potential income outweighs the changes to management practices.

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