Defra Secretary Thérèse Coffey has set out detailed plans for the Sustainable Farming Incentive, a key part of the Government’s Environmental Land Management schemes.
The scheme will provide farmers with a diverse range of paid actions to manage hedgerows for wildlife, plant nectar-rich wildflowers and manage crop pests without the use of insecticides, she said.
Six additional standards will be added to the Sustainable Farming Incentive this year, meaning farmers can receive payment for actions on hedgerows, grassland, arable and horticultural land, pest management and nutrient management. They build on the three existing standards to improve soil health and moorlands introduced in 2022 – which nearly 1,900 farmers already have in agreements.
In reality, the options for pig units that aren’t part of wider farming enterprises remain limited.
The Government has also detailed what farmers will be paid to deliver through an enhanced version of the Countryside Stewardship scheme, which will see around 30 additional actions available to farmers by the end of 2024, adding to more than 250 actions farmers can take at present. The next round of Countryside Stewardship Higher-Tier will open in February, with Mid-Tier following in March.
Countryside Stewardship Plus will reward farmers for taking coordinated action, working with neighbouring farms and landowners to support climate and nature aims. It will deliver the same high environmental ambition previously planned for Local Nature Recovery, including managing floodplain meadows to reduce flood risk and improve biodiversity, restoring and maintaining peatland for carbon capture and storage, and enhancing and managing woodland to mitigate against drought and enhance its resilience to climate change.
The scheme will also be improved so farmers benefit from greater flexibility over when they can apply and how they manage their agreements, with improved access for tenant farmers and increased access to Higher Tier options and agreements.
Elsewhere, following high demand last year, Defra has confirmed it will open applications for the second round of the Landscape Recovery scheme in the spring to support ambitious large-scale nature recovery projects, focusing on net zero, protected sites and habitat creation. This could include projects creating and enhancing woodlands, peatland, nature reserves and protected sites such as ancient woodlands, wetlands and salt marshes.
They involve groups of land managers and tenant farmers, working together to deliver a range of environmental benefits across farmed and rural landscapes. 22 projects began last year aiming to restore nearly 700km of rivers and protect and enhance 263 species.
There has been concern over Defra’s new environmental schemes, with a lukewarm response from farmers so far, prompting fears low take-up and the suggestion that money cut from Basic Payments will not all make its way back to farmers via the schemes.
However, Ms Coffey said these incentives will make food production more resilient and efficient over the longer term whilst contributing towards the UK’s environmental goals on carbon, biodiversity, water quality and net zero.
She said: “Farmers are at the heart of our economy – producing the food on our tables as well as being the custodians of the land it comes from.
“These two roles go hand-in-hand and we are speeding up the roll out of our farming schemes so that everyone can be financially supported as they protect the planet while producing food more sustainably.
“Today’s announcement provides clarity and certainty to farmers, allowing them to make business decisions and cover costs as direct payments are phased out whilst getting involved in Environmental Land Management schemes.”
The plans deliver on the assurances provided by Farming Minister Mark Spencer during a speech at the Oxford Farming Conference earlier this month, announcing increased payment rates.
Further details on the new standards and payment rates being rolled for the Sustainable Farming Incentive as well as information on the future roll out of Countryside Stewardship Plus from 2024 is available HERE.
The Sustainable Farming Incentive has been made as straightforward as possible to apply online for with farmers giving positive feedback over the simplicity and speed of the application, Defra said.
The 2023 offer has been made as flexible and accessible as possible to enable farmers to get started in the scheme and start to deliver the outcomes for their business and the environment, following extensive pilots and feedback to make it simpler, clearer and more workable for farmers, it added.
NFU Vice President David Exwood said: “It’s encouraging that Defra has provided us with more detail on the future of the ELM programme and brought forward a broader, more flexible offer for the Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI).
“Information on the six new standards for SFI 2023, payments rates, as well as the evolving Countryside Stewardship scheme, is incredibly useful and provides some of the clarity we have been asking for.
“If ELMs is to be successful, we’ve always said that it needs to be simple, provide certainty and fairly reward farmers for taking part. This means schemes being developed that are inclusive and available to every farm business – whether upland or lowland, tenant or owner-occupied.”
Mark Tufnell, President of the Country Land and Business Association (CLA), said: “This is crunch time for a sector that has stoically tolerated years of turbulence and uncertainty.
“These standards and payment rates are broadly in line with what was expected, and will encourage many arable farmers to take the leap into the new agricultural schemes. But there is little new in this for those on moorlands, or the hard-pressed hill farmer struggling to earn a living.”