Future farming policy: hope or rhetoric over action?

Today’s blog is written by Alice Groom, Senior Policy Officer and RSPB lead on environmental land management.

Today, the UK Government has announced further details on two of the new environmental land management schemes. These schemes should reward farmers in England for supporting nature’s recovery and tackling climate change. After years of uncertainty and disappointment, does this announcement bring fresh hope?

Following the vote to leave the European Union, the UK Government committed to reforming farming policy, moving away from arbitrary area-based payments, and instead paying farmers to provide habitat for wildlife, plant trees and restore soil health.

This commitment received near universal support, however in the following years government has struggle to make progress and there have been worrying signs that government ambition for the is waning.

The RSPB has become deeply concerned by the lack of progress which has burdened farmers with uncertainty and puts at risk efforts to stem the decline of wildlife and tackle the nature and climate emergency.

Recent research has shown that 600 million birds have been lost across Europe since the 1980s and 1 in 4 birds in the UK are endangered. Farmers are critical to reversing these declines.

At the end of last year, details began to emerge on the first of three environmental land management schemes, the Sustainable Farming Incentive. The RSPB, National Trust and The Wildlife Trusts joined forces to voice their dismay at the government’s decision to pitch the level of ambition for this scheme far too low and ignoring the important links between farming, climate, and nature. 

Does today’s announcement provide hope?

Today, speaking at the Oxford Farming Conference, Secretary of state George Eustice made an announcement about the two further schemes, namely Local Nature Recovery and Landscape Recovery. He said that these 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 300,000 hectares of wildlife habitat by 2042.”

This sounds very positive, but are these schemes really up for the job?

He described the Local Nature Recovery scheme as “the improved and more ambitious successor to the Countryside Stewardship scheme in England. It will reward farmers taking action at a local level and working together to tackle issues such as water pollution by reducing run-off, mitigating flood risk by installing flood reservoirs, restoring peat or wetland areas, and adding trees and hedgerows to fields.”

It is vital that the Local Nature Recovery Scheme is more ambitious than Countryside Stewardship if government is to meet its environmental targets. Whilst Countryside Stewardship is an important scheme, we know it is insufficient to halt the loss of species, reduce agricultural emissions and recover our precious rivers. The Sustainable Farming Incentive show fund much of what the current mid-tier of Countryside Stewardship covers, with Local Nature Recovery driving uptake of the more ambitious and stretching activities, such as restoring peatlands and the rarest and most threatened species such as curlew and turtle dove.

Eustice went on to say that Landscape Recovery scheme would “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 announcement suggests that government will fund projects to create and restore 10,000-20,000 hectares of habitat in the next few years. Beyond that the ambition for the scheme is uncertain.

We know that radical change is needed. We need to create more, bigger, better and joined areas if nature is to thrive once more. We also know that nature and farming can and must go hand in hand.


The rhetoric is good, but the devil is in the detail

Whilst the rhetoric is good, the details behind this announcement are quite thin. The government has not provided much detail on what these schemes will look like, who will operate them, whether farmers will be able to access advice, clarity on eligibility or how the three schemes will operate together.

The government has sketched out a little more detail on what environmental outcomes they want these schemes to deliver. This is welcome, but the outcomes outlined are very high level and far from the precise and measurable objectives we have been asking for. Government has not set out how they will design the schemes to ensure they can achieve these important outcomes. Currently, they appear to be relying on high uptake alone while evidence from previous schemes demonstrates this is insufficient. Investment in excellent scheme design, administration, advice and support are all critical.

The other aspect that remains unclear is how government will measure and track progress and the delivery of environmental outcomes. This will be a critical test to ensure the schemes are effective, to provide excellent value for money and enable farmers to take pride in what they deliver.

In summary

Government’s rhetoric on the future farming schemes provides some hope that we will see a set of schemes capable of supporting nature friendly farming. But the details remain thin on the ground and government has a lot of work to do before these schemes are in a fit state to launch.

Government must double down and fill in the blanks.

  • They need to provide clarity to farmers so they can plan – will they receive advice, who will run the schemes, will they need to develop a land management plan?
  • How will government ensure these schemes deliver against their environmental objectives? Will they introduce an element of competition? Will the schemes be carefully targeted? Will there be an element of directed choice?
  • How will government measures success? Will they invest in the necessary monitoring and evaluation programme? Or will investment in such crucial elements be capped?

We desperately need answers to these questions to ensure these vital schemes, can truly deliver. Wouldn't you agree?