The government have announced some administrative changes in the last month, with some staff administering Environmental Stewardship and Woodland Grant Schemes moving to the Rural Payments Agency from Natural England and from the Forestry Commission. The role of the Forestry Commission’s woodland officers remains the same for now.
The future of the English Woodland Grant Scheme remains uncertain, and we are receiving almost monthly updates from the Forestry Commission regarding interim measures for 2014. A number of woodland improvement grants are currently not available, though the Woodfuel WIG, which is helping install forest roads and tracks, has just been extended by nine months (see below). This is a really good scheme if you need track improvements and have plans to harvest timber. We have just tendered a major scheme for one of our clients, and he is looking to receive a grant of around £28,000.
We have previously reported that a new Environmental Land Management Scheme is due to come in, which is likely to include both the current Environmental Stewardship Scheme and the Woodland Grant Scheme. That is almost certain to come in during 2015, but no details have yet been published.
The government did announce last week its major proposals for CAP reform, with a strong indication of directions of travel. Three areas of change which we think relevant to woodland and conservation management are:
1. An increase in the proportion of farm payments devoted to environmental schemes. They will increase from 9 to 12% from 2015 and then to 15% in 2018. Wildlife organisations had campaigned for 15% straight away, but it is a move in the right direction.
2. Also in the paper published last week was a commitment to increase single farm payments for upland areas. Some have asked for woodlands to be eligible for payments as well, but there was no information on that, and it is probably unlikely. Payment on woods would mean lower rates on farmland, as there is only the same amount of funding to distribute.
3. Environmental Stewardship schemes will be more targeted, especially at the Higher Level. It is proposed that there will be encouragement for landscape scale changes and partnerships, something now championed by many conservation organisations. Such schemes may require a range of partnerships between organisations and landowners to enable effective delivery. A focus on partnerships of this nature may however lead to geographic priorities, with not all areas eligible. Also, because of existing long term agreements, these changes are likely to be gradual.
No commitments or linkage back to the new forestry policy. That looked for more active management (47% to 65%) and more planting, to increase woodland cover (see below). Both excellent targets, but still awaiting the mechanisms to deliver. We believe that these targets are unrealistic without some changes and improvements to grant schemes.
In the south west the proportion of unmanaged woods is high, with steep slopes and remoteness within farms big issues. At a recent Cornwall Woodmeet, the new Area Director for the Forestry Commission, Bruce Rothnie, indicated that they would be focussing on helping owners make woods commercially viable. This could work – give a wood a commercial future and it will be actively managed and conserved. Indeed this was the philosophy operated by the East Cornwall, Small Woodland Project, started by our Simon thirty years ago!
However, we are promised more changes will be announced during 2014, so hopefully next time we report on grants, we will be able to give you the whole picture, rather than a mix of interim measures, aspirations and promises of further information to follow.