Ruairi Brogan, Sustainable Agriculture Policy Officer, brings us up to date on the future agriculture policy in Northern Ireland.

Last month RSPB Northern Ireland responded to the Department of Agriculture, Environment, and Rural Affairs (DAERA) Future Agricultural Policy Proposals. Amongst a flurry of policy consultations, summarised in our previous blog, this long-awaited paper finally gave us an idea of how the future agriculture policy will be shaped, setting the direction for the largest agricultural transformation in Northern Ireland in over 50 years.

The proposals come at a critical time for Northern Ireland given the need to take action for nature and climate. From 1970 to 2012, the most significant driver of biodiversity loss has been agriculture, followed by climate change. Biodiversity loss, increasing greenhouse gases and ongoing degradation of water quality will continue without ambitious reform of agricultural policy with associated financial support and advice. The Future Agricultural Policy Proposals have the potential to deliver a successful and just agricultural transition to a more sustainable farming system, however it must be done with nature at its core.

Image of wildflowers (c) Ruby Free

One of the key changes to the policy is the assertion that over time money will move away from a resilience payment, a new form of area-based basic payment, towards the Farming for Nature package which will become the central plank of the agriculture policy. This is an encouraging step in the right direction; however, it is still unclear how and when this redirection of funds will be implemented. A definitive timeline for transition is required to signal the need for change and ensure such support under resilience is temporary. Any prolonged use of resilience payments will only risk reinforcing the status quo.

Image (c) David Sandford

Another welcome step in the proposals, is the intention to incentivise farmers to manage 10% of their land for biodiversity. Leaving 10% of lowland farmland to nature can have significant positive impacts to wildlife abundance, soil quality, pest control and farm business. Establishing field boundaries, wet features and pollinator strips are just some of the ways that farmers can provide habitat and food for birds and invertebrates. Although the measure is a step in the right direction and will provide a reasonable level of coverage for many farms, High Nature Value farming systems often manage a much higher proportion of their land for nature. Ambition is needed to ensure that 10% is viewed as the minimum standard for nature, not an end goal.

In order for species to thrive, coherent and resilient ecological networks are required. Farmland biodiversity management therefore needs to make a more meaningful contribution to our priority landscapes, through a “bigger, better and more joined up” approach, as outlined in the Lawton Principles. Reforming agricultural policy provides a clear opportunity to achieve such landscape-scale outcomes through better management of existing habitat, and the growth and creation of more joined up habitats by strengthening the restoration options already within the current Environmental Farming Schemes and introducing new options for species and more intensive systems.

More sustainable land use and nature friendly farming practices will be complemented by the establishment of on-farm and landscape-scale nature based solutions. Nature based solutions help protect, restore or create wild places whilst simultaneously storing and locking away carbon from the atmosphere and/or supporting adaptation to climate change. Examples include peatland restoration and native tree planting, which provide an array of public goods. Public goods are the outcomes and benefits from land management that cannot be provided by commercial markets. They include air, soil and water quality, biodiversity, mitigation of flood risk and a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. A survey, commissioned by RSPB Northern Ireland, shows overwhelming support from four in five MLAs to financially reward farmers for the delivery of environmental public goods.

The Future Agricultural Policy Proposals should acknowledge the essential role that nature-based solutions can play in meeting climate and nature targets. RSPB Northern Ireland has unveiled case studies to highlight how local farmers are already delivering on-farm nature based solutions which can play a key role in achieving climate targets and a nature positive future, while at the same time building more resilient farm businesses. Ambitious reform of agriculture policy is required to enable and support farmers to scale-up and expand this kind of work across Northern Ireland, helping to realise the Lawton principles of ecological networks, through bigger, better and more joined up habitats for nature on every farm.

For more information please contact:

Ruairi Brogan
Policy Officer – Sustainable Agriculture
RSPB Northern Ireland