High Ambitions for Nature Friendly Farming?

Alice Groom, RSPB Head of Sustainable Land Policy, England, makes the case for well-designed farm wildlife schemes and sufficient funding to properly support farmers ambitions to restore nature ... 

We are in a nature and climate emergency. The UK is one of the most nature depleted countries in the world. And as 70% of our land is farmed, farmers have a huge role to play in meeting the challenge of restoring nature. But how is this vital and urgent work to be done? 

First, there’s no shortage of ambition and will - farmers across England want to do more to help wildlife as well as running their businesses and producing the food that we all need. Second, the knowledge is there; we know what to do and have proven how wildlife can be restored on all farms.  

The big problem is, and has always been, how we fund and support the restoration of nature on farms. The thing is – farmers run their businesses by selling their produce, for which there is a market. There is no equivalent market for selling birds, bees, butterflies and wildflowers.  However, because wildlife is something the public wants, then the approach has long been that the public should fund farmers to produce it out of their taxes. Public money for the public good.  

This means that saving nature on farmland is wholly dependent on the Westminster Government, and specifically, Defra.  The restoration of nature on farms thus relies on, first, how much money the Government is willing to invest, and second, the schemes that Defra designs to distribute the money. 

Over the past decade, the schemes that have really delivered positive changes for priority habitats and species have been the so called “Higher Tier” schemes. Because cash is limited, these have been competitive schemes that offer long-term agreements to fund the more complex and targeted wildlife restoration.  Agreements are set up with advice from Natural England and include a whole range of different “options” for action. View these options as a sort of menu from which farmers can choose the best for their farm and for delivering each of which they will get paid.  

In the revamped nature schemes collectively known as the Environment Land Managements Scheme (ELMS), the two higher tiers are known as Countryside Stewardship Plus and Landscape Recovery. The lower tier is called the Sustainable Farm Incentive.  This lower tier is “OK” - and “if” designed well could keep things from getting worse.  Plus, it’s also a good entry point for farmers new to nature friendly farming, a place from which greater ambition could start. 

However, on its own it’s not going to deliver. This is crucial for nature, but also for the UK Governments own legally binding targets to tackle the nature and climate crises. In short, without well designed and resourced Higher Tier schemes the Government will fail nature.  

So, how’s this all going …  

Sadly, things seem to be going backwards. In the early 2010’s 2000-2500 Higher Level Stewardship agreements were taken forward each year. These agreements helped bring nearly 1.5 million hectares of farmland into good condition for nature. Many of these agreements are now ending and farmers are looking for new schemes to deliver more.  Indeed, demand from farmers is currently 35% up on last year.  

However currently, Defra is processing only around 500 higher tier schemes this year!  

They must do much, much better at this.  Defra must increase access to the higher tier.  For many, not being able to move to a new agreement is holding back much needed cash for nature restoration. Or is leaving farmers reliant on year-on-year extensions to old schemes with no longer term certainty.  Right now, Defra must urgently increase the pipeline of higher tier agreements from the current 500 to at least 3000-4000 a year.  

And the Government needs to look again at funding for schemes. The recent Wildlife and Countryside Link Nature 2030 Campaign asks that all political parties pledge at the next election to give “A pay rise for farmers, doubling the support for farmers to make sure that they can deliver nature-friendly farming and nature restoration”.  This the RSPB fully supports. But to work, a significant proportion of the cash has to go to well-designed higher tier schemes if we are to have any chance of being on the right path to restoring nature by 2030.