Opinion: Simplicity is the best policy for Environmental Land Management

After all the hype suggesting a revolutionary change in how agri-environment schemes are designed and run in England, it turns out that the new Environmental Land Management (ELM) scheme is likely to be similar to existing Countryside Stewardship schemes.

Gone is the suggestion of payments relying on “outcomes” rather than “actions”.

Also dropped is the proposal that farmers should be paid according to their farm’s “natural capital” – whatever that means.

See also: Defra answers farmers’ questions on ELMs

As someone who’s been involved in agri-environment schemes since 1982 (when I took part in a South Downs pilot trial for what came to be called Environmentally Sensitive Areas), I’ve seen them gradually evolve into sophisticated agreements with a myriad of tiers for different landscape and soil types.

Over time I’ve also experienced how slowly some fields respond once intensive farming methods stop, in terms of improved and more diverse flora and fauna.

Improvement takes time

While some land quickly displays excellent stands of wild flowers and abundant quantities of ground nesting or rare birds, other soil types take longer.

Some fields can literally take decades to show improvements.

So I’ve been very concerned about one initial proposal for ELM – that payments be withheld from farmers until or unless real improvements in biodiversity or reduced greenhouse gas emissions have been achieved.

How could farmers be expected to abandon their intensive farming systems or transfer their land from existing agri-environment schemes to ELM, with payments so insecure?

Similarly, the “natural capital” proposal for valuing a farm in terms of its potential for investment of taxpayers’ money through ELM (rather than, as now, farmers being paid for “income forgone” and the cost of implementing agri-environmental schemes) has been problematic, given its meaning is so unclear.

For instance, a 2014 report by the Department for Business Innovation and Skills suggested that fracking to produce natural gas could create a £30bn investment boom.

At the same time, England’s food, woodlands, clean water, wildlife and recreation were apparently only valued at £2.3bn.

Without clarification of what natural capital means, what qualifies for government investment could easily see payments for environmental improvements lose out to, of all things, exploration for fossil fuels.

So, despite the likes of the Tenant Farmers Association raising concerns, it is with a sense of relief that I read the latest reports of Defra’s direction of travel as it tries to develop ELM into a workable scheme that farmers will wish to participate in.

Some resistance

Of course, there’s always been resistance from some farmers to agri-environment schemes because of the red tape that comes with them.

The form filling can be daunting, and scheme complexity can mean that expensive professional help is required to assist with an application.

Record keeping can also be onerous, as can compliance inspections, which are always nerve-wracking.

Many farmers simply object to being told how they must farm, although whether, as the Basic Payments Scheme is withdrawn, they’ll be able to afford not to sign up to ELM, only time will tell.

Personally, I’ve never felt remotely oppressed by agri-environment agreements, and I’m relieved that ELM is now not likely to represent a radical departure from past schemes.

After nearly 40 years of effort, my organic farm has good counts of wild flowers, corn buntings, yellow hammers and skylarks.

It’s not necessary to re-invent the conservation wheel if it’s already spinning well.

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