What are the likely implications for farming and conservation in Cumbria of the budget cuts?

Taken from an article by Paul Arkle, Cumbria FWAG in the Cumberland News

Contrary to initial concerns that funding for schemes such as Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) would be reduced as part of the cutbacks to Defra, the government decided to ring-fence the flagship programme.

By 2013/14 the budget for HLS will increase by 83 per cent over current funding. This bodes well for farmers in Cumbria, which has been one of the key areas for HLS targeting within the north-west.

One consequence of the cutbacks is a limitation on the current year’s budget and Natural England cannot start any new agreements until April. This means HLS applications that have just been or are about to be submitted are unlikely to be agreed until the next financial year.

In the future, the demands of any new agreements will be greater in terms of the environmental improvements that will be required.

In effect, this may mean that the ‘goal posts’ for entry into HLS will narrow so that farmers will need to contemplate taking on more extensive agreements demonstrating ‘value for money’ from a wildlife, landscape, historic, resource protection or public benefit point of view.

This is not entirely new; the budget for HLS in early 2007 was limited for a while and applications had to be comprehensive to merit an agreement.

Similarly, the former Countryside Stewardship (CS) scheme became very competitive and only well thought-out applications were successful. They had to closely meet local target objectives, such as moorland restoration in the North Pennines.

A temporary hiatus in the HLS scheme is bound to have some implications. However, entry level and upland entry level stewardship could provide a stop-gap.

Although not ideal, farmers who have recently come to the end of their countryside stewardship agreements could sign up to an entry level agreement for now, while their applications are being assessed or while they wait for a combined ELS/HLS agreement next April.

These ELS or UELS agreements could be terminated and restarted in conjunction with the HLS agreement next year. In many cases, this would mean that farmers receive the majority of the agri-environment funding that they would have been entitled to under a combined HLS/ELS agreement.

But inevitably, the delays will affect capital works such as hedgerow or drystone wall restoration. These will not be able to go ahead this winter. This is likely to have a knock-on effect on the local rural economy in Cumbria and elsewhere.

Fencing and walling contractors may see a temporary downturn in the demand for their services and this may extend into the future if, ultimately, there are fewer HLS agreements.

Nevertheless, the overall prospect for farming that has some involvement in the HLS scheme is optimistic, given what it might have been, and Cumbrian farmers should be in a good position to take advantage of the increased funding.