A decade ago intensive agriculture came under fire for the damage it was causing to the country’s natural environment.
Swathes of the English countryside had become devoid of hedgerows, birds, flowers and other features that had been familiar to previous generations, while farming was said to cost the UK £1.5bn each year in damage to air, soil and water.
At the time, Sir Don Curry’s report on the future of farming in England called for an industry that was both profitable and delivered benefits for the environment.
To help make serious changes to the countryside the Curry report advised the government to revamp the financial support it offered to farmers. It recommended a proportion of farm subsidies were redirected through modulation from crop production to environmental protection.
It was the first time the country’s farmers were encouraged to see the financial benefit of environmental goods and services and it was a move met with scepticism by some in the industry.
“Modulation doesn’t work,” the then NFU president Ben Gill said. “In the end the industry loses money and the environment doesn’t gain.”
Ten years later, more than £407m is now handed out each year to farmers who have pledged to carry out environmental measures though some 54,000 stewardship agreements. The schemes cover 68% of England’s agricultural area.
The figures mean the government’s initial target to get two-thirds of farmers signed up to environmental agreements has been met. But, were the scheme’s doubters right to say they would fail to address the Curry report’s serious environmental concerns?
“The Curry report had a sense of anxiety that farmers weren’t doing anything for the environment,” says Mark Felton, director of land management development at Natural England, the government advisory body in charge of managing green farming schemes.
“It was suggested we needed a scheme to get those farmers who were doing something recognised and to encourage others to do more.”
The government set a target of having 70% of utilisable agricultural land in agri-environment schemes, which tackled environmental concerns by encouraging farmers to carry out measures such as ditch management and managing hedgerows.
Split into four categories (see box on p23) which can be chosen depending on the natural features on their properties, farmers achieve “points” on each hectare by picking from a menu of options. Once the necessary points are achieved, they qualify for an annual payment.
“We met the government’s ambitions for take-up and when the government reviewed the scheme in 2008, it was clear things were working to meet their initial targets,” Mr Felton says.
“There’s good partnership between farmers and the government on this programme. Initially it was seen as a way to get voluntary modulated money back, but now it’s seen as a tool for us to work together on the environment.”
Take-up of options like field cover management and buffer strips on cultivated land, and plantings of wild bird seed mixture has been strong as farmers got to grips with the schemes.
But as more and more people signed up to the agreements, concerns have arisen about gaps in the take-up of some options which provide particular outcomes.
“This has led to a shift in government targets from numbers of farmers signing up to the schemes, to the quality of what they were doing,” says Geoff Radley, Natural England head of profession for land management.
“The problem was not so much with the options farmers were doing, but the ones they weren’t.
“The most popular options are boundary ones. It’s been great for hedges and that’s not a bad thing, but everyone’s doing them and there are very few people selecting the infield options.”
The tendency to focus on certain options means Natural England has been forced to adapt its approach to try and encourage producers to think more creatively about the ones they do choose.
“An important principle of the scheme is choice and we want to maintain that,” says Mr Radley. “But we have tried – through environmental training and information and in partnership with the Campaign for the Farmed Environment – to guide people and persuade them to look at other options.”
Natural England has devised a series of maps which indicate which options are most needed in particular areas, as well as advising agents and farmers on which bundles of options will have the best outcomes.
“For example, if you are a farmer just north of Grantham in the East Midlands, you can see it’s important to have farmland bird options because its a high-priority area for birds,” says Mr Radley.
“You can weigh those options up against similar maps for soil and water options to decide what will have the most impact.”
Natural England concedes it can be difficult to encourage farmers to choose different, more-effective options which may require more work than the more popular ones.
Mike Green, the organisation’s senior specialist in arable agronomy, says there is inevitably slow uptake in some options, with some – such as skylark plots and beetle banks – proving more difficult to sell to growers.
“Despite evidence that they can deliver agronomic benefits, the options that deliver for some species need an in-field option – and that’s where the tension often arises,” he says.
“Some of the difficult options are where land-sharing with things like beetles requires a weedier crop.
“The range of herbicides we can use is quite restricted, so we are looking at other non-herbicide opportunities to allow these types of habitats to sit in-field.”
Mr Green says if Natural England is able to prove how options are delivering environmental benefits then more farmers will realise how they can fit in and help as part of a farm’s rotation.
“It’s not just being in an agreement, it’s understanding the importance of area and scale,” he adds.
“We have to recognise that with the pressures on land, it’s all very well to give farmers a leaflet, but they need someone to go through it and understand why it’s important and how they can help.
“With farmland birds, we have examples of HLS and ELS combinations which have worked in particular localities.
“Leaving 7-10% of an arable farm uncropped is a big commitment, but there are lots of examples where, with positive management, these options could be better-used and deliver more.”
In a bid to drive the benefits of stewardship – as well as delivering better value for money from ELS and HLS for the taxpayer – Natural England launched the Making Environmental Stewardship More Effective scheme earlier this year.Under MESME, Natural England is planning to introduce a series of changes to stewardship schemes from 1 January 2013 to help meet DEFRA’s goal of “going further, faster”.
In an overhaul of the points-based system, Natural England hopes to encourage farmers to adopt more infield-options which have greater benefits for wildlife.
Of some of the most popular options, managing 100m of hedgerow will be cut from 22 points to 16, while completing farm environment records will be worth one point a hectare rather than three.
Additional points will need to be found from alternative options, which Natural England admits could make it harder for farmers to meet scheme targets and require greater management.
But it says the changes should help producers achieve more for biodiversity, insect and bird numbers and ensure public money is better spent on improving the environment.
“There is a series of adjustments, some of them are adjusting payments for options that have been very popular, such as boundary and tall grass options, others offer new choices to people and other offer greater flexibility,” says Mr Radley.
“New choices are new options aimed at grassland farmers, including one that pays them for allowing small areas of rye grass to go to seed for bird food.
“The science we now have means we understand the options we need.”While the 2010 Environmental Stewardship handbook maintained area constraints, more flexibility has also been introduced to allow farmers to put more land into their options.
“We have discovered that small patches are good, but when you start to think about scale, then bigger is better,” Mr Radley adds.
“We are nearly at the end of this Environmental Stewardship programme, so this is our last opportunity to make changes, but MESME is about trying out ideas that might contribute towards the next generation of schemes.
“Much of it is responding to what farmers have been saying about the scheme being too prescriptive. It’s not easy, but we are trying to find ways to respond to their concerns.”
While Natural England is progressing towards its next stewardship review in 2013, the shadow of Common Agricultural Policy reform is looming over England’s environmental agreements.
Nothing has been agreed yet by the European Commission or the Parliament, but discussions about the so-called “greening” of direct support payments – where farmers would have 20% of their payments withheld until they met certain environmental measures – have raised concerns.
Some farmers even threatened not to sign up for new stewardship agreements in fear of being forced to take even more land out of production to satisfy environmental criteria.
But, both European Commissioner Dacian Ciolos and England’s farm minister Jim Paice have assured farmers that those already doing environmental good through stewardship agreements would not be hit with further green measures.
“There is every indication that there is no intention to punish English farmers that are already doing the right thing,” says Mr Felton.
“The minister has said that farmers would be able to withdraw from agreements without penalty if they were disadvantaged by whatever is put in place by greening.”
But if farmers do pull out of agreements, will the newly “greened” CAP do as much for the environment as the schemes it could be replacing?
“We have seen analysis which says permanent pasture agreements won’t change much,” says Mr Felton.
“We have seen assessments of crop diversification which point to a surprisingly deep impact on the number of farmers affected.
“We have done work on whether the introduction of Ecological Focus Areas would substitute set-aside – and it doesn’t look like they would fully substitute Entry Level Stewardship. At this stage, we just don’t know.
“It all depends on the complexity of what is introduced. But whatever happens in the CAP, the agenda will still be to produce food and have a better environment.”
Regardless of what might be agreed in Europe, Mr Felton will not be drawn on what he thinks the future for England’s stewardship agreements might be.
“We are moderately concerned about where we are heading, but all we can do is provide evidence to show what works,” he says.
“We will be ready to work with DEFRA to develop whatever new programme is allowed, but there is no point speculating until the Commission and Parliament agree on what the future CAP will look like.
“The government has signalled through its white paper that it sees a wide range of benefits through the ecosystem approach. To get the best of these things requires active management through schemes like ELS and HLS.
“But the future of CAP is so far away from being clear that we have to keep reminding ourselves that there’s no point speculating.”
Subject to approval by the European Commission, the options will be available for new or renewed ELS agreements which start after 1 January 2013:
- Supplementary feeding in winter for farmland birds
- Supplement to add wildflowers to buffer strips and field corners on cultivated land
- Ryegrass seed set as winter and spring food for birds
- Legume and herb-rich swards
- Small-scale hedgerow restoration
Four of these options will also be available for existing agreements, which are amended from 1 January 2013.
From the beginning of next year, some changes are also being made to the points values of environmental stewardship options. An updated ELS handbook setting out the changes will be available in October 2012.For further information call 0300 060 0011 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Extended overwinter stubble
“It’s a one-year option so it can fit automatically in a rotation,” says Mike Green, Natural England senior specialist in arable agronomy. “Some farmers are finding they have land that isn’t that productive – they put wheat in, spray it and get nothing from it.
“If a farmer is looking for a one- or two-year break from cropping to address weed or drying-out issues, this is option could be perfect.
“Once farmers start thinking about how options can fit their systems, it is easier for us to find something that gives them and the environment a benefit.”
Supplementary feeding for farmland birds
Science has shown there is a “hungry gap”, because of the limited area of farmland bird food being planted.
“We are supporting birds in autumn and winter, but seed runs out before the new seed appears,” says Geoff Radley, Natural England head of profession for land management.
“In the longer term, we need to develop ways to bridge that by sowing the right quantities, but in the short term, supplementary feeding can be a solution.”
Mix it up and go large
“The scale of options is something people can change to get more results,” says Mr Green.
“Where people traditionally used the grass margins, now we are multilayering it because land is tighter – if you have a margin you should be able to use it for other things like nectar mixes.”
Putting more land into stewardship and layering more options on it can bring benefits to the farm as well as the environment, he adds.
“Where a farmer has bird mix we encourage them to rotate it, because after a few years unless they are putting on enough fertility you can get a weed problem.
“The same was true with the nectar flower mix – it was a non-rotational option, but now the science suggests these two make good bed fellows. The nectar mix can provide some residual nitrogen and helps suppress weeds.”
- Entry Level Stewardship:Open to all farmers and landowners, ELS is the most basic scheme and covers almost 60% of England’s agricultural land. Based on a points per hectare calculation, farmers automatically receive funding once they allot 30 points from over 65 options.
- Organic Entry Level Stewardship: The organic strand of ELS, OELS is open to all farmers registered as fully organic or in conversion. The scheme requires 60 points-worth of management options, with 30 points automatically received for the organic land entered into the agreement.
- Uplands Entry Level Stewardship: The successor to the Hill Farm Allowance, UELS supports hill farmers who have land in Severely Disadvantaged Areas. Options can be selected from the ELS list, but can also include capital items such as stone walls in recognition of the importance of the upland landscape.
- Higher Level Stewardship: Involving complex management over a longer period, HLS applications are assessed to ensure they benefit the wildlife, landscape, resources or historic environment of an area. Unlike ELS, payments depend on the number of options you are able to deliver.Natural England has “target areas” so farmers know what environmental priorities are high for their region. For more information on the target areas and priorities go to bit.ly/stewardshipschemes