The Government has unveiled details of two new environmental land management schemes, as part of the transformation of agricultural policy in England.
Speaking at the Oxford Farming Conference, Defra Secretary George Eustice also announced a welcome 30% increase in current Countryside Stewardship payments from this year, including for existing scheme holders.
He set out the next generation of policy schemes. The Local Nature Recovery scheme will pay farmers for locally-targeted actions which boost nature in the farmed landscape, such as creating wildlife habitats, planting trees, adding hedgerows to fields, restoring peat and wetland areas, reducing run-off and mitigating flood risk by installing flood reservoirs.
Defra described it as ‘the improved and more ambitious successor’ to the Countryside Stewardship scheme in England. An early version of the Local Nature Recovery scheme will be trialled in 2023 with a full roll-out across the country from 2024.
The Landscape Recovery scheme will support more radical changes to land-use change and habitat restoration such as establishing new nature reserves, restoring floodplains, or creating woodland and wetlands.
Speaking at the virtual Oxford Farming Conference, Mr Eustice announced that applications will shortly open for the first wave of Landscape Recovery projects.
Up to 15 projects will be selected in this first wave, focusing on two themes – recovering England’s threatened native species and restoring England’s rivers and streams. These pilot projects alone are expected to deliver significant environmental benefits including:
- The creation of 10,000 hectares of restored wildlife habitat
- Carbon savings between 25 to 50 kilotonnes per year – roughly equivalent to taking between 12,000 – 25,000 cars off the road
- Improved status of around half (45-57%) of the most threatened species in England, including the Eurasian curlew, sand lizard and water vole
The reforms represent the biggest changes to farming and land management in 50 years, with more than 3,000 farmers already testing the new schemes, the Defra said.
Taken together with the previously announced Sustainable Farming Incentive which supports sustainable farming practices, Defra said the schemes are designed to provide farmers and landowners with a broad range of voluntary options from which they can choose the best for their business.
Defra said the schemes will play an essential role in halting the decline in species by 2030, bringing up to 60% of England’s agricultural soil under sustainable management by 2030, and restoring up to 300,000 hectares of wildlife habitat by 2042.
With the agricultural transition under way and Basic Payments being reduced each year to fund new environmental schemes, by 2028, Government spending is expected to be evenly split across farm-level, locally tailored, and landscape-scale investment.
All schemes will be designed to pay for public goods which go above and beyond regulatory baselines and the schemes won’t pay for the same actions twice, Defra said.
The environmental schemes will be voluntary and it will be for farmers to decide what combination of actions is right for them.
Defra said it was designing them to be accessible, supportive and with fair compensation to incentivise high levels of uptake. The schemes will be adjusted and expanded as the pilots continue and the aims will be kept under review as long-term, legally binding targets are developed under the Environment Act.
Mr Eustice said: “We want to see profitable farming businesses producing nutritious food, underpinning a growing rural economy, where nature is recovering and people have better access to it.
“Through our new schemes, we are going to work with farmers and land managers to halt the decline in species, reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, increase woodland, improve water and air quality and create more space for nature.
“We are building these schemes together, and we are already working with over 3,000 farmers across the sector to test and trial our future approach. Farmers will be able to choose which scheme or combination of schemes works best for their business, and we will support them to do so.”
Tony Juniper, chair of Natural England, said: “Collectively, these schemes mark an historic shift in the way we manage our land, setting us on course toward the production of sustainable food at the same time as rising to the urgent task if halting and reversing the decline of Nature.
“At Natural England we look forward to working with the government to breathe life into England’s Nature Recovery Network, including through the very exciting ambition to create large scale Landscape Recovery Areas.”
NFU Vice President Tom Bradshaw said: “We welcome today’s further clarity on the roll-out of the Local Nature Recovery and Landscape Recovery as part of the agricultural transition, including scheme eligibility and option-based approach available to farmers to support activity such as the creation of wetland habitats and managing trees and woodlands. The increases in payment rates for new Countryside Stewardship agreements are also welcome.
“There are still a number of questions that need answers, not least the costs farmers are likely to incur from participating in these new schemes and how the schemes are accessible right across the country and for every farmer. Currently there appears to be a lack of options for tenant farmers to get involved and this must be addressed as a matter of urgency.
“It is also clear that neither Local Nature Recovery or Landscape Recovery will be widely available to farmers over the next three years, making it difficult to replace the falling income from BPS. To remedy this, farmers must have more detail about the new Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI), specifically when will SFI ‘early rollout’ be launched this year and how quickly can the SFI offer be increased to enable greater uptake, so they can make the important decisions needed now which will affect their business for years to come.”
Soil Association policy director Jo Lewis said: “The latest announcements on the Environmental Land Management Schemes are encouraging, but they still risk falling short of the transformational change needed. To drive that change, we need clearer, quantified targets, such as for reducing pesticide and artificial nitrogen fertiliser.
“The government must also acknowledge that these schemes won’t work in isolation. They risk failure if they are forced to compete with mounting commercial pressures that encourage more intensive farming and cheap food production, for which the environment and our health ultimately pays the price.”