Defra unveils next stages of ELM schemes but concern remains

George Eustice has today unveiled further detail on the two new environmental land management (ELM) schemes
George Eustice has today unveiled further detail on the two new environmental land management (ELM) schemes

The government has unveiled the next stages of its plan to pay farmers for actions which benefit the environment, but industry groups warn that many farming businesses are being left in the dark over their future.

Announcing the plans today at the Oxford Farming Conference, Defra Secretary George Eustice said the two new environmental land management (ELM) schemes will play an 'essential role' in fighting climate change and halting the decline in species by 2030.

The Local Nature Recovery scheme will pay farmers for locally-targeted actions which make space for nature in the farmed landscape, such as creating wildlife habitat, planting trees or restoring peat and wetland areas.

Meanwhile, the Landscape Recovery scheme will support more radical changes to land-use change and habitat restoration, such as establishing new nature reserves, restoring floodplains, or creating woodland and wetlands.

Taken together with the previously announced Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) which supports sustainable farming, they are designed to provide farmers with a range of voluntary options to choose from.

The reforms are the biggest changes to farming and land management in 50 years, with more than 3,000 farmers already testing the new schemes.

But industry groups have warned that many farmers are still left in the dark over the future direction of their businesses, with notable concerns including future costs and the exclusion of tenant farmers from participating.

The NFU said its biggest worry was that the schemes would result in reduced food production in the UK, leading to the need to import more food from countries with lower production standards.

Responding to today's announcement, the union's vice president Tom Bradshaw said more information was needed from the government.

"While it is encouraging that sustainable food production is recognised, there is still a lack of detail on how it fits in with the schemes’ ambitions to improve farm biodiversity, restore peatlands and manage woodlands.

"This lack of detail is preventing farmers from making crucial long-term decisions that are essential to them running viable and profitable businesses."

He added: “There are still a number of questions that need answers, not least the costs farmers are likely to incur from participating in these new schemes and how the schemes are accessible right across the country and for every farmer.

"Currently there appears to be a lack of options for tenant farmers to get involved and this must be addressed as a matter of urgency."

Industry groups have also raised concerns that neither of the two schemes will be widely available to farmers over the next three years, making it difficult to replace the falling income from BPS.

While the Country Land and Business Association (CLA) welcomed the announcement, it said the schemes were 'by no means a silver bullet' and that a profitable agriculture sector remained 'a core part of the rural economy'.

Mark Tufnell, president of the CLA, said: "Britain is already at the forefront of agricultural innovation and animal welfare standards, and we must do more to ensure our great produce is supported here and abroad.

"We need to ensure that profitable agriculture remains a core part of the rural economy and feeds the nation sustainably."

Mr Eustice also announced today that applications will shortly open for the first wave of Landscape Recovery projects, with up to 15 projects selected in the first wave.

These will focus on two themes – recovering England’s threatened native species and restoring England’s rivers and streams.

The pilot projects are expected to deliver major benefits, including the creation of 10,000 hectares of restored wildlife habitat and carbon savings between 25 to 50 kilo tonnes per year.

But while environmental and nature groups have welcomed today's detail from the government, they have called for more systemic and transformational change.

The Soil Association said there needed to be "clearer, quantified targets, such as for reducing pesticide and artificial nitrogen fertiliser".

“The government must also acknowledge that these schemes won’t work in isolation," the charity's policy director, Jo Lewis said.

"They risk failure if they are forced to compete with mounting commercial pressures that encourage more intensive farming and cheap food production, for which the environment and our health ultimately pays the price.

“Rewarding nature-friendly farming practices is only part of the equation. We need fairer, shorter supply chains that prioritise nutritious food over cheap, ultra-processed food, and which fairly rewards farmers.

"And we must stop signing trade deals that undercut our farmers by wiping out nature abroad."

The Local Nature Recovery scheme is the government's successor to the Countryside Stewardship in England, rewarding farmers to take action at a local level and work together to tackle environmental issues.

An early version of the Local Nature Recovery scheme is expected to be trialled in 2023, with a full roll-out across the country from 2024.

The Landscape Recovery scheme will pay farmers who want to take a more radical, large-scale, and long-term approach to producing environmental outcomes through land use change and habitat and ecosystem restoration.

By 2028, government spending is expected to be evenly split across farm-level, locally tailored and landscape-scale investment.

It said all schemes will be designed to pay for public goods which go above and beyond regulatory baselines, and that the schemes won’t pay for the same actions twice.

Tony Juniper, chair of Natural England, said the environmental schemes 'mark an historic shift' in the way farmers managed their land.

“These reforms pave the way for those who manage the land to produce healthy food alongside other vital benefits, such as carbon storage, clean water, reduced flood risk, thriving wildlife and beautiful landscapes for everyone to enjoy."