Defra secretary George Eustice is set to unveil plans at the Oxford Farming Conference (OFC) for two new Environmental Land Management (ELM) schemes which will pay farmers in England to restore natural habitats on up to 300,000ha of land.
The Local Nature Recovery (LNR) scheme, seen as a more ambitious successor to Countryside Stewardship, will pay farmers for locally targeted actions which make space for nature in the farmed landscape and countryside, such as creating wildlife habitat, planting trees or restoring peat and wetland areas.
Defra said the scheme will be “less punitive” than schemes run under previous EU rules and farmers will not be punished for “minor discrepancies”, but fraud or more substantive failing will be addressed where necessary.
The Landscape Recovery (LR) scheme, meanwhile, 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.
The two new ELM 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 300,000ha of wildlife habitat (less than 3% of total land area) by 2042, Defra said.
It has estimated that the two schemes, as well as the Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) – the third scheme under ELM – will reduce agricultural emissions by 6m tonnes a year in England from 2033, equivalent to removing 2.9m cars from our roads.
Speaking ahead of his appearance at the virtual OFC 2022 event, 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.”
The NFU has welcomed further clarity in the rollout of LNR and LR as part of the government’s agricultural transition from the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, known as the CAP.
But while the union is encouraged to see Defra recognise sustainable food production, it remains concerned about how it fits in with the schemes’ ambitions to improve farm biodiversity, restore peatlands and manage woodlands.
“This lack of detail is preventing farmers from making crucial long-term decisions that are essential to them running viable and profitable businesses,” said NFU vice-president Tom Bradshaw.
“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.”
No payment rates
Environmental organisations are also dismayed by the lack of detail, including no indication yet of payment rates for LNR or LR.
Alice Groom, the RSPB’s senior policy officer, said: “We need ambitious and radical schemes that reward farmers for taking the necessary action to tackle the nature and climate crises. On this, we are in complete agreement with the government.
“However, once again, the welcome rhetoric isn’t being matched by the urgency and action that the situation demands, and a lack of detail on how these schemes will work in practice are still a cause for concern for both NGOs and farmers.”
The £2.4bn of subsidies paid each year to farmers in England will be split evenly at farm level across each of the three ELM schemes (roughly £750m-£800m each) by 2028. However, some of the annual budget will be invested in projects to improve farm productivity.
The government’s aim is for at least 70% of farmers, covering at least 70% of farmland, to take up SFI agreements, and for Local Nature Recovery to attract significant numbers of farmers and land managers. Defra has also committed to delivering at least 10 Landscape Recovery projects covering more than 20,000ha between now and 2024.
Defra has rejected claims from farming unions that the rewilding schemes will significantly reduce domestic food production and lead to more reliance on food imports.
It says, in most cases, the schemes will often involve farmers devoting unproductive parts of their farms to nature recovery.
Tony Juniper, chairman 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.
“More than two-thirds of England is farmed and these reforms pave the way for those who manage the land to produce healthy food alongside other vital benefits, such as carbon storage, clean water, reduced flood risk, thriving wildlife and beautiful landscapes for everyone to enjoy.”
Local Nature Recovery scheme: How the scheme will work
Local Nature Recovery (LNR) is the more ambitious successor to Countryside Stewardship in England, paying for the right things in the right places and supporting local collaboration to make space for nature in the farmed landscape.
Defra says Countryside Stewardship has attracted 9,000 more farmers in the past year – 40% more applicants than in the previous year.
The LNR scheme will take the best of Countryside Stewardship, refine and improve it and pay farmers or actions to make space for nature in the farmed landscape and the wider countryside, alongside food production.
This could include, for example, managing and creating habitats, adding trees to fields or hedgerows, storing water or restoring peat or wetland areas in appropriate areas of their farm.
The scheme will provide a range of options so that farmers can choose the right combination for their setting. Defra hopes learning from its test and trials programme will help create a scheme with wider appeal that can deliver more and better outcomes in a less bureaucratic and more supportive way.
In designing LNR, the intention is to take forward and build on the experience of management actions in Countryside Stewardship Mid Tier offers, as well as more tailored activities on sensitive sites as with Countryside Stewardship Higher Tier or Higher Level Stewardship offers.
Defra will publish more details on the full list of options later this year, alongside more details on scheme rules and proposed payment rates.
An early version of the LNR scheme will be trialled in 2023, with a full rollout across the country from 2024.
Defra wants farmers to be able to enter private arrangements, such as carbon trading, providing biodiversity net gain units, and nutrient trading, alongside their involvement in government schemes.
It will continue to develop its thinking in this area with farmers and investors over the next year, and set out the rules before launching the scheme.
Landscape Recovery: How the scheme will work
Landscape Recovery (LR) is open to any individuals or groups who want to come together to deliver large (500-5000ha) scale projects.
The scheme will pay landowners or managers who want to take a more radical, large-scale, and long-term approach to producing environmental and climate outcomes through land use change and habitat and ecosystem restoration.
LR represents a new approach to supporting long-term, significant habitat restoration, and land use change of the sort that will be essential to achieve the government’s environmental ambitions.
It will initially focus on biodiversity, water quality and net zero. Defra will fund projects that contribute to these outcomes over a long period and through substantial changes to land use and habitats.
The scheme will begin piloting around 10 projects in 2022, with at least one further round of pilots before its launch in 2024. The application process for the first round of up to 15 pilot projects will be launched shortly.
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 at least 10,000ha of restored habitat and carbon savings of 25,000-50,000t a year – roughly equivalent to taking between 12,000 and 25,000 cars off the road.
Defra will assess applications for the first round of pilot projects against set criteria focused on the project’s feasibility, costs and potential impact. It will run separate competitions for projects under the species recovery and river restoration themes.
Full details of the criteria for both themes and how they will be assessed with guidance will be published shortly.
Projects will then have 16 weeks to prepare their applications before the application window closes. Defra will confirm the chosen first round pilot projects this summer.
Industry reaction to the two new schemes
“These schemes are by no means a silver bullet. The government must also ensure that policy changes look towards domestic food production and security.
“Britain is already at the forefront of agricultural innovation and animal welfare standards, and we must do more to ensure our great produce is supported here and abroad. We need to ensure that profitable agriculture remains a core part of the rural economy, and feeds the nation sustainably.”
Mark Tufnell, president, Country Land and Business Association
“BPS [Basic Payment Scheme] payments are being removed in real time from tenant farmers while we have a vague commitment for further work to be undertaken on how tenants can access schemes. It does feel like we are pushing water uphill, given that we have already provided Defra with the necessary solutions.”
George Dunn, chief executive, Tenant Farmers Association
“It is good to hear that things are progressing, but it’s clear there are still a number of big issues to be resolved, including the extent to which tenants and commoners will be able to participate, the taxation implications of receiving the new payments and how the need to support plant and livestock genetic diversity will be encouraged.
Christopher Price, chief executive, Rare Breeds Survival Trust
“Supporting farmers to reduce agricultural emissions significantly is the right vision. The UK government now needs to put in place legally binding strategies and plans for reducing emissions from agriculture and land use, which ensure farmers in England reap the maximum benefits of shifting to a net zero, nature positive farming system and help build resilience into our food systems.”
Tanya Steele, chief executive, World Wildlife Fund UK