Defra told higher payments and key advisers needed under ELM

Higher payment rates and the assistance of skilled advisers will be required to make the upcoming Environmental Land Management (ELM) scheme successful, Defra has been told.

Exmoor National Park Authority and the Exmoor Hill Farming Network (EHFN) jointly took part in one of the national test and trials for ELMs in 2020 and have now reported their findings.

A cross-section of different holding types, sizes and locations were chosen, totalling 26 farms.

See also: Environmental Land Management scheme – what we know so far

The main topics the group was focusing on were natural capital and how it can be quantified, spacial prioritisation (defining what farmers can deliver on their land that will make big differences for the whole landscape) and payment levels.

The Sustainable Farming Incentive is one of three schemes that will make up ELMs, and a national pilot for this is due to start in October 2021.

Although Defra has previously stated that ELMs will be a simpler process than previous schemes, one of the main concerns that has been raised is the need for specialist advice.

The key findings the Exmoor group has reported to Defra are:

  • The income-foregone approach to calculating payments for environmental measures needs to be updated as a result of the withdrawal of the Basic Payment Scheme, which has underpinned farm profitability, particularly in upland areas. ELM payments will need to include a share of the whole-enterprise fixed costs (such as land, machinery and core labour costs) and thus will need to be significantly higher than those offered under previous agri-environment schemes.
  • Any fall in farm payments could drive a drop in land under agri-environment schemes, threatening important habitats. Heather moorland, wetlands and wood pasture are particularly vulnerable, because the grazing regimes that sustain them often only marginally benefit the farm business. National Parks England has already reported a near 17% drop in the amount of farmland on Exmoor under such schemes since 2015.
  • 88% of respondents to a survey of EHFN members stated they expected to need the services of an adviser to help them complete their ELM plan, with three to six days’ advice deemed realistic for an 80ha mixed farm. A mix of support from scheme officers, generalist independent advisers and specialists has been noted as the most effective method. Only about 50% said they knew where they might get this advice. This could be a barrier to farm businesses accessing ELM funding.
  • Although farmers like the idea that payments for environmental outcomes will be based both on their own costs and also the value of public benefits provided (natural capital values), it is difficult to assign reliable natural capital values. More research is needed to be able to quantify aspects such as cultural heritage, historic features, wildlife, public access and engagement. Using natural capital values solely would not account for the costs incurred by farmers, which would likely affect whether they choose to deliver them.
  • While most farmers support the concept of natural capital – the range of assets held by farmers that provide public goods valued by society – the terminology is unfamiliar and may be off-putting, at least initially. 
  • Using maps to show the location of natural capital assets can help identify priorities and opportunities on holdings. Combining this with information about the business helps root the ELM plan and ensures it is practically and commercially relevant.
  • Mapping farm clusters helped provide evidence for how collaborative working can aid environmental outcomes, such as creating nature corridors or delivering improvements to water quality or flood resilience. This could help with creating Nature Recovery Networks, which may become a requirement for local authorities if proposals in the Environmental Bill are enacted.

Huge opportunity

Robert Deane of environmental consultancy firm Rural Focus, who was working alongside the Exmoor organisations, said he hoped the new system would be fairer.

“We combined several layers of data to build a picture of what each farm delivers for the environment and for people, and created heat maps to show the potential to scale up these activities,” he said.

“The outgoing Basic Payment Scheme simply isn’t set up to account for this level of detail and in some ways hasn’t properly incentivised farmers wanting to do the right thing for nature.

“This is particularly true in upland areas such as Exmoor, where a volatile market and tighter margins leave very little room for manoeuvre.”

Alex Farris, conservation manager at Exmoor National Park Authority, said the opportunity for farm clusters to link up their assets was particularly encouraging.

“This is the kind of landscape-scale nature restoration that hasn’t been achievable until now and could prove the lifeline for many of our native species as we face the realities of climate change,” Mr Farris said.

Dave Knight, chair of the EHFN, said: “About 56% of the National Park is farmland and we hope this report goes some way towards demonstrating to the government what we have to offer, and how best our industry can be supported to deliver multiple benefits for people and nature.”

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