George Eustice is a Cabinet Minister with a good understanding of his portfolio. He has been a Defra Minister since 2013, an extraordinary length of time in modern politics, so he should have a grasp of his brief by now. He has spoken recently at the Oxford Farming Conference, the NFU AGM and the Conservative Rural Forum.
It is exciting to develop from scratch a new countryside policy that should be a huge improvement on the Common Agricultural Policy that we have left. The framework of the new policy is sound, but the main problem is that it remains just that, a framework. Defra has been constantly criticised for the lack of detail, particularly on how farmers will survive the phasing out of the Basic Payment.
The flagship scheme is Environmental Land Management (ELMS), due to be introduced in 2024. A little more detail was published recently, particularly with relation to the Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) which will become the lowest tier of ELMS in due course. But there is still doubt about the final focus of the scheme and there is great debate amongst the stakeholders who are advising Defra on the detail. One of those privy to these discussions described it as a battle for the soul of ELMS. There are single issue environmental groups that are determined it will simply be a replacement agri-environment scheme, with emphasis on nature conservation, whilst others argue for much broader, more ambitious and innovative approach.
SFI will be open to all farmers and it is hoped to get a similar response to that for the Entry Level Scheme of Environmental Stewardship, which attracted some 70% of all farmland. One of the main criticisms of Countryside Stewardship was that it abandoned this ‘broad and shallow’ scheme when ‘greening’ was imposed. That was rather different however, as instead of offering a grant for participation, any farmer who did not comply was penalised 30% of his Basic Payment.
The proposed structure of SFI is interesting. It is planned to have a number of standards, eight in the pilot, which farmers can choose from. Each standard, with the exception of woodland, has three levels: introductory, intermediate and advanced with different rates of payment for each. The initial eight standards are: arable and horticultural land, arable and horticultural soils, improved grassland, improved grassland soils, low and no input grassland, hedgerow, on farm woodland and waterbody buffering. The rates of grant are based on those for Countryside Stewardship but will be adjusted according to experience in the pilot. Indeed, the whole scheme is designed to be flexible so that it can evolve over time to ensure the best outcomes.
The arable and horticultural land standard has the three rates of grant of £28, £54 and £74 per hectare for the three levels of involvement. The introductory level involves the year-round provision of resources for farmland birds and insects, following a nutrient management plan and the rapid incorporation or organic manures and slurries. The actions become more onerous for the higher grant rates, for example precision application of fertilisers and creating habitat for crop pest predators for the advanced level.
The introductory level of the arable and horticultural soils standard involves identifying fields at risk from compaction and soil erosion and taking action to reduce the risk. It pays £30 per hectare, the intermediate level £47 and the advanced level £59 for further actions such as minimum tillage, improving soil structure by increasing organic matter and limiting the area of the field that is travelled on. For areas at high or very high risk, there is an additional grant of £114 per ha for establishing and maintaining dense winter green cover.
The hedgerow standard has an introductory level of £16 per 100 metres which requires leaving areas of hedge uncut each year and having occasional hedgerow trees. The intermediate, £21, and advanced level at £24 per 100 metres involve having frequent hedgerow trees and buffer strips alongside.
Farmers can apply for as many standards as they wish and over any area of the farm. For example they may choose to apply both for the arable and horticultural land and the arable and horticultural soils standards over the same field. The only land excluded is that already in an agri-environmental scheme. It is expected that farmers will develop a land management plan to inform their choices, a voluntary measure initially but it may become part of the application process. It will be interesting to see whether farmers in the pilot think that the scheme is sufficiently attractive, including the rewards, for the mass uptake hoped for. Defra is planning for far less bureaucracy both in the application and monitoring processes with a greater element of self-assessment.
Further details of the other two schemes that make up ELMS, local nature recovery and landscape recovery, are expected later this year with pilots due next year. The names imply that these schemes will be focused very largely on nature conservation and thus a replacement for Countryside Stewardship. If so, this would be a disastrous lost opportunity. We must not lose sight of the fact that farmland produces food for the nation and without farmers there will be very limited conservation. For example, improving soil health and fertility is a top priority if we are to improve productivity, but it seems likely that this will only be covered in SFI, the lowest tier of the scheme.
Farming will change more in the next ten years than it has in the last fifty as it adapts to pressures, not least the loss of the Basic Payment. Any new policy for the countryside must recognise that food production and the environment are inextricably linked and must be considered together. ELMS must cover climate change, soil health and farm productivity alongside nature conservation.