• Written by Andrew Davis
  • Posted on May 12, 2022
  • Articles

In the frequent debates about priorities for land use, there are those who claim that carbon sequestration and combatting climate change is critical and urgent.  There are others who argue that rewilding and the recovery of biodiversity is the most important, whilst others point to the crisis in farming and say that food production must be the focus.  The debate often becomes heated, but the fundamental truth is that all are priorities and that farmers must be at the heart of policy development and delivery.

Farmer clusters are an excellent way of co-ordinating nature conservation strategies over wide areas.  They grew out of the recommendation in Sir John Lawton’s 2010 Report ‘Making Room for Nature’ in which he famously stated that conservation needed to be ‘more, bigger, better and joined’.  From that came Defra’s pilot Nature Improvement Areas and the great success of the farmer led and driven Marlborough Down group.

There are now more than 150 farmer clusters across the country, all led by farmers who work together to co-ordinate habitat creation and wildlife recovery.  Some have joined to become super clusters, such as the Martin Down, Allenford and Chalke Valley Farmers clusters covering an area of 236 sq km in the Cranborne Chase Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty south and west of Salisbury.  Now these have come together with four others to form the Environmental Farmers Group.

There are two rivers Avon in Wiltshire, one flowing west, the other south.  The latter is known as the Hampshire Avon despite flowing mainly through Wiltshire.  It has the largest catchment of any chalk stream in England at 170,000 ha, rising in the Vale of Pewsey near Devizes and flowing through Salisbury to the sea at Chichester.  There is some glorious countryside in the catchment, downland, chalk streams, the Pewsey Vale and Salisbury Plain.  This is recognised in the designations, Cranborne Chase, West Wiltshire and the North Wessex Downs Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and the New Forest National Park.

Only launched last week, it is hoped that the Environmental Farmers Group will attract over 80 farmers covering more than 40,000 ha, a quarter of the catchment, more if the MOD Salisbury Plain Training Area is excluded.  The objectives are biodiversity recovery, clean water in the River Avon and its tributaries, and net zero farming by 2040.  As there are at least 137 farmers in the seven clusters, farming a third of the catchment, there is room for expansion.  President of the NFU Minette Batters is a member of the Lower Avon farmer cluster and the headquarters of the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust is at Fordingbridge, so there are influential figures involved.  Indeed, Teresa Dent, Chief Executive of the GWCT, has been instrumental in developing farmer clusters from the start and fully supports this initiative.

However, there is a further important objective to help farmers achieve their conservation aims, developing markets for providing conservation targets.  The Environmental Land Management Scheme is still being devised by Defra and will offer incentives from public funds for farmers to provide public goods when fully rolled out in 2024.  The scheme will include Local Nature Recovery and Landscape Recovery aimed at broad scale conservation initiatives so the Environmental Farmers Group will be very well placed to participate.

But there is also investment from the private sector in new markets.  For some time water companies have been paying farmers to minimise soil erosion and diffuse pollution in watercourses.  Nitrate and phosphate levels are a particular concern, especially as Natural England has decreed that developments in designated areas should only be allowed if it can be shown they would not contribute to increasing levels of the nutrients in rivers.  This has led to the building of up to 100,000 new homes being put on hold, but the requirement may be met by paying farmers to reduce levels reaching watercourses as an offset.

Similarly, the Environment Act that became law last November requires developers to show Biodiversity Net Gain from any new development.  Initially set at 10%, some local councils are already demanding 20%, to be provided initially onsite through landscaping and gardens, offsite but in the local vicinity or more widely through Government schemes.  Farms and estates can provide that Biodiversity Net Gain and be paid by the developer.  Last July, Natural England launched its Metric 3.0, a mechanism that allows farmers to calculate how much biodiversity there is on their land and how it might be increased as an offset trade.

The carbon market is rather more advanced but there are currently only two calculators, for peatland and tree planting.  There is clearly scope for carbon to be sequestrated on other farmland as shown on the Cholderton Estate (article 9th December 2021) so it is necessary to devise a mechanism for this trade too.

The potential for these offsetting trades are new and uncertain with contracts lasting 30 years or more, which is why some agents are urging caution.  The details of ELMS are not yet known so it is impossible to assess alternative options from the private sector.  It is evident that buyers would much prefer not to deal with individual farmers, which is one reason why the Environmental Farmers Group was set up.  Christopher Sparrow, an experienced land agent, will advise the group on potential trades and develop market mechanisms on behalf of members, who are required to trade their Natural Capital only through the group.  It is an exceptional initiative that should benefit all landowners as well as enhancing the environment of the Hampshire Avon catchment.