Defra has announced a series of support measures, including a relaxation of rules on cutting or grazing land in stewardship schemes, in a bid to help lessen the impact of the drought across the country.

The changes come into effect from today (17 August) and last until the end of 2022, and allow agreement holders in the Countryside Stewardship or Environmental Stewardship schemes to take steps such as cutting or grazing additional areas of land to help ease shortages of bedding, fodder, grazing or forage crops.

A full list of these easements has been published by the Rural Payment Agency (RPA) and includes steps, such as allowing ‘buffer strips’ and field corners to be cut early. Guidance has also been made available to inform farmers how to record the adjustments they have made.

Drought status

The relaxations come after the Environment Agency declared drought status for large parts of England last week.

“We are better prepared than ever before for these unprecedented dry conditions, but many farmers are concerned about water supplies and the impact on their crops and livestock,” said environment secretary, George Eustice. “We are therefore introducing temporary easements on agri-environment schemes to give them the flexibility to respond.”

Paul Caldwell, chief executive of the Rural Payments Agency, added that he hoped the steps will help farmers safeguard food production and help with animal welfare.

“We are committed to supporting agreement holders as much as we can during this difficult period and help ensure that they can maintain existing environmental commitments.”

Industry response 

Reacting to the news, NFU vice president David Exwood said: “The measures announced by government today provide some welcome options for Countryside Stewardship and Environmental Stewardship agreement holders. It will allow actions such as cutting or grazing on land in these agreements which will help to ease shortages of bedding, fodder, grazing and forage crops.

“This important derogation, which the NFU has been calling for, will provide some relief to livestock farming businesses which are already using vital winter feed supplies at a time when on-farm costs are continuing to increase significantly.

“We also welcome the announcement from the Rural Payments Agency (RPA) that further rounds of funding for new applicants to the water management grant will open in the autumn. But we would like to see Defra’s regulators working together more efficiently to ensure the permissions and licenses are delivered alongside the funding approval.”

Further steps

The NFU added that the weather over the past six months has highlighted the urgent need for government to take national food production and resilience seriously. Through its agriculture monitoring groups and working closely with industry organisations, Defra says it’s continuing to assess the impacts from dry weather and is considering what further steps can be taken in the coming weeks.