Opinion: Greening was a blunt instrument

The other week, I was talking to an applicant to the Countryside Stewardship (CS) scheme about not being able to use CS options for ecological focus areas (EFAs), and advising caution in coding these options on their next Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) forms.

If you call the options fallow, BPS will assume you are going to use them for EFA, unless you tell it not to. You mustn’t overlap EFAs and CS buffer strips. You still need to meet the three-crop rule. Is all this complication going to be in the Environmental Land Management (ELM) scheme, they asked. I am praying it isn’t, I replied.

It’s not often as a farm environmental adviser that my prayers are answered. But I got up the next day to find that greening, the three-crop rule, EFAs and all, will be scrapped in 2021. To be fair, the Defra announcement had been made two days earlier, but my carrier pigeon was slow.

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Was I happy? In my first ever Farmers Weekly article I wrote that we should stop making farmers do agri-environment schemes, cross-compliance and greening. Farmers hated greening, and environmental bodies thought it was, well, greenwash. Even the EU auditors said it did little for the environment.

So three cheers, and let’s get back to farming. Except… is there anything wrong with the principle of cropping diversity? Should every farm not be able to say it has 5% of its cropped land in areas that benefit wildlife? If the UK government will no longer tell us to do this, will there be any green stuff on farms outside of CS?

Quiet revolution

Yet while greening had us in its grip, a quiet revolution was taking place in farming. Grass has got back into arable rotations. Rotations have lengthened, and a wider range of crops is being grown. Companion cropping – mixes of crops in the same field – how’s that for cropping diversity?

Old stewardship went, new Countryside Stewardship came in. Among the many who did not rush to join CS, few did away with their field margins and field corners. Research shows habitat patches distributed among cropped areas maintain and can even enhance yields. Herbal leys and cover crops are here to stay.

So, greening was behind the agri-environment curve. It was a blunt instrument, and it stymied people going into CS with its double-funding rule, making them find more land for EFA. A pity the announcement came three days before the CS deadline, when many had already had to make their decisions.  

Many lessons to learn

But it’s not just good riddance. There are so many lessons to learn in this for the future ELMs. How to pay attention to what farming is actually doing for the environment. How not to dictate a scheme from above. How not to have too many layers, and too many rules.

The greening announcement also came three days before the deadline for responding to the ELMs policy discussion document. It’s difficult to answer questions on how you think ELMs should work best, as I said in my comments, if you don’t think that’s how it should work at all, like having a scheme with three tiers.

I also said (more or less) that Defra should ignore the environmental bodies, and just listen to me. But that’s a prayer that might go unanswered.

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