Published 26 September 2020

Wildflowers including poppiesThis September marks the end of a busy window for countryside stewardship applications.  At the beginning of the year farmers were urged to consider applying, in order to benefit from favourable returns and a fixed source of income for five years.  The message certainly seemed to hit home, with a mix of applications, from those new to environmental schemes altogether and those seeking to replicate expired agreements.

Towards the end of the year, as the Agriculture Bill enters its final stages, we hope to have a series of statements and consultations which will reveal a more detailed picture of what the next few years will entail.

At the moment we know that applications for countryside stewardship will remain until 2023, after which it is mooted that a ‘stepping stone’ (currently dubbed the Sustainable Farming Incentive or SFI) may be introduced to bridge the gap between the end of the Basic Payment scheme and the start of ELMS.

An article on the BBC website this week reported concern from environmentalists that an ‘easy-to-enter’ SFI scheme could reward farmers for normal good practice, such as ‘conserving soil’ or ‘keeping pesticides out of streams’.  Such activities shouldn’t, in their opinion, be funded by the tax-payer.

But for smaller farms in particular the SFI could bring short-term relief for those who are worried that the new ELMS ‘whole farm management’ approach won’t generate sufficient income to keep them in business.  Good soil management, the protection of water courses, and the management of hedgerows and trees all contribute to the maintenance of the English countryside for public enjoyment; these measures cost farm businesses money, so why shouldn’t public funding make a contribution?

In contrast to the forecast simplicity of the SFI, ELMS looks set to be made up of a tiered approach.  The scheme will pay for measures that are above regulation: much of cross compliance remains in legislation, and the government may take the opportunity to introduce other baseline measures.

Earlier this week the NFU, along with the TFA, CLA, LEAF and the Sustainable Food Trust, set out their proposals for how the new ELM scheme should work.  The key to a successful scheme?  Optimising the efficient use of resources through capital investment and land management measures, and offering incentives for introducing complementary, holistic measures across the whole farm.

You wouldn’t be blamed for thinking that this sounds familiar, with criticism levied at DEFRA that the new scheme will bear more than a passing resemblance to old agri-environment schemes.  As always, the devil will be in the detail, and we await with bated breath the White Paper containing the full plans, to be released later this autumn.

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