CONCERNS have been raised over proposed changes to a scheme aimed at supporting upland farmers to enhance their woodland areas.

The government body, Natural England, has suddenly announced that the Wood-Pasture Restoration Option (WD5) within the Countryside Stewardship Scheme is being withdrawn from the uplands with immediate effect.

With many farmers already mid-application or planning to apply for this option in the future, the impact could adversely hit both the environment and upland communities.

David Morley, head of conservation & environment for H&H Land & Estates, said: “This abrupt policy shift affects applications submitted earlier this year, which have already been worked-up by farmers and their local Natural England advisers, and were due to commence on January 1, 2021.

"Natural England’s announcement will come as a devastating blow to many upland farmers looking to enhance the semi-wooded landscapes of their farms through the Higher Tier of the Countryside Stewardship Scheme.

“Wood-pasture – open woodland that is managed by grazing livestock – is a tremendously valuable habitat, in terms of biodiversity, landscape value and carbon storage, which is key in the fight against climate change.

"Because of the open structure, trees tend to become wider and more complex in form than in closed-canopy woodland, and upland wood-pasture typically supports a unique range of plants, fungi and invertebrates."

He said it is a fundamental component in the upland landscape, as in Dovedale near Hartsop, Deepdale, Borrowdale, Rydal and Kentmere, in the Lake District. The restoration of high-quality wood-pasture usually requires a significant change in management, often involving the adoption of a low-intensity, native cattle grazing regime and the minimal use of any inputs, as well as planting more trees.

He continues: “The rationale behind Natural England’s decision is that the 'income foregone' by undertaking the WD5 option (which pays £244 per hectare) is much lower in the uplands than on lowland farms.

"Therefore, Natural England argues that the option represents poor value for money in the uplands for the taxpayer."

MR Morely however says that the new policy sends out the wrong message – that trees have no value in the uplands – and directly contradicts the Government’s target to plant 11m trees by 2022.

He said: “For 2020 applications, the Creation of Wood-Pasture Option (WD6, which pays £409 per hectare) is being retained. Bizarrely, this means that only farmers and land managers looking to create this valuable habitat from scratch or extend areas of wood-pasture can access essential support, while those seeking to enhance existing wood-pasture cannot.

“Natural England has not announced what will happen for the 2021 application window, but it seems likely that either wood-pasture options will be withdrawn in the uplands altogether, or they will be re-introduced at a lower payment rate.

"This could significantly limit the uptake of the Higher Tier Countryside Stewardship Scheme in the uplands, as proposed applications may no longer be financially viable.

“Those that value wood-pasture in our upland landscapes can only hope that Natural England will reverse this misguided policy decision as soon as possible.”