Changes to SFI and Countryside Stewardship explained

For anyone who has missed it there has been some change, movement and development to Defra’s offer to farmers under the new Environmental Land Management Schemes (ELMS). These changes have been in reaction to a lack of enthusiasm or sign up from farmers and following much negotiation between the farming community and Defra officials. Here is a summary of the updates and changes to the Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI), which is one part of the ELMS package of schemes and grants that are gradually replacing BPS.

The SFI aims to pay farmers for looking after the natural environment in the course of their farming practices. An initial pilot scheme failed to ignite the imagination of farmers with many farmers saying the payments went nowhere close to supporting the cost of environmental work.

Defra has continued to work with groups of farmers across the country to tweak, modify and alter the offer and has now come back to the table with a new raft of six standards to add to the initial three standards launched in June 2022. Writing on the Defra website in her regular blog, Defra’s Janet Hughes says: ‘From the start of the agricultural transition, our approach has been to work with farmers to develop reforms to agricultural policy and to introduce those changes gradually.’

The three standards that were launched in June 2022 were: arable and horticultural soils; improved grassland and improved moorlands. These have now been added to with the following six standards: nutrient management; integrated pest management; hedgerows; arable and horticultural land; improved grassland; and low/no input grassland.

The aim is to meet the dual demands of environmental protection and food production. Farmers who already have an SFI agreement will be able to add these actions and more land. SFI agreements last for 3 years. If you’re a tenant farmer, you do not need landlord consent to take part. If you carry out the actions, payments will go to you. You can leave the scheme early, with no penalty, if you unexpectedly lose management control of the land you’ve entered into the scheme.

Continuing with her discussion of the additional actions, Hughes says: ‘The SFI standards will help you reduce your costs, improve your efficiency and improve the natural environment. For example, the nutrient and integrated pest management standards can help you optimise your use of inputs, helping you to reduce costs whilst also potentially maintaining or even improving yields.’

As well as extensions to the SFI, Defra has also announced changes to the Countryside Stewardship (CS) schemes. From January 2023, payment rates for capital and revenue options within CS schemes have been increased. Here is a link to the increased payments rates.

The scope of the offers under CS have also broadened. Changes include: Expanding the capital offer to include specific items to help farmers and land managers prepare for habitat creation and restoration; expanding the Catchment Sensitive Farming offer; allowing Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) agreement holders to take up CS agreements alongside their HLS agreement, for example, to create or restore habitats; bringing some Higher Tier options into Mid Tier to support wider take-up of biodiversity-friendly option; and increasing options available in the Wildlife Offers and Wild Pollinator and Farm Wildlife Packages.

In addition, there are plans to introduce an annual declaration in place of the current burdensome revenue claim process for all CS agreements.

The evolution of the Countryside Stewardship scheme will see around 30 additional actions available to farmers by the end of 2024. As the schemes evolve over the next two years, Defra’s intention is to offer SFI and CS in a single, integrated service. Farmers will be able to select a combination of actions from both schemes that work best for them.