Opinion: Let’s ‘champion the farmed environment’ ahead of Brexit

I’ve learned to be dubious of “reboots” – I’ve been burned before: the Star Wars prequels, Indiana Jones IV, the Cheeky Girls, to name just a few.

However, sometimes a reboot is necessary – and not just in pop culture. Warships get a mid-life overhaul to refuel, re-equip and subsequently relaunch as more effective fighting machines

See also: Payment by results – a blueprint for farm support post Brexit

And so it was recently that I found myself speaking at a relaunch of the Campaign for the Farmed Environment under its new nom de guerre “Championing the Farmed Environment” (CFE).

First launched in 2009, it’s a voluntary, industry-led initiative to promote delivery of environmental benefits within productive farm businesses, and bridges the gap between regulatory requirement and paid stewardship schemes.

As such, during the years of ELS/HLS, there was a risk that CFE had little relevance to your average farm. Why? The phenomenal uptake of those easy-to-access schemes. At their peak in 2014, they covered 70% of all usable agricultural land in the UK.

Poor financial incentives

Yet in 2015, the first year of the Countryside Stewardship (CS) scheme, only 3,000 of the 11,000 expiring ELS farms could be convinced to transition. I wasn’t one of them.

Every year since, I’ve looked in earnest at entering CS, but the poor financial incentives (by my calculations I would be out of pocket), fiendishly rigid and complex options, and administrative chaos surrounding both application and payment have deterred me every time.

Thus, a relaunch of CFE – with greatly expanded guidelines covering soil, water, air and wildlife – is timely and welcome: many farmers may consider it the only game in town while CS continues to be unfit for purpose.

Indeed, land agent Savills recently reported that managers of two-thirds of the 400,000ha they manage intend to forswear committing to CS and await the arrival of the post-Brexit Environmental Land Management scheme (ELMs) – not due until 2025.

It’s thus essential the environmental gains of ELS aren’t lost in the interim, and CFE is the best vehicle to maintain them. On my farm, the vast majority of my last ELS is still in place – unpaid.

More sympathetic to environment

That scheme helped me break the habit that every acre has to be intensively managed.

Like many farmers, I’ve been on a journey when it comes to my environmental approach in the years I’ve been farming:

I’m far more sympathetic to good environmental stewardship now than I was even 10 years ago. It’s become automatic.

And the beauty of CFE is that it’s infinitely flexible to the circumstances of every individual farm – the progenitors of CS seem to forget that many farmers are lone operators on low incomes struggling just to get the day job done, let alone concern themselves with the exact sward height of their very-low-input grassland.

Of course, CFE is one part of a greater appreciation that we can and must do more to safeguard the environment.

For me, robust integrated crop management is a central part of what I do to minimise my footprint alongside producing affordable, high-quality food.

So, despite the best efforts of Defra, Natural England, the RPA and innumerable environmental bodies to sabotage many a farmer’s environmental impulses with badly designed schemes and chaotic administration, I would urge everyone to engage with the relaunched CFE to safeguard what we’ve already achieved until CS gets its own reboot. Come on ELMs; don’t let us down.

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