Farmers fear downgrades to green payment scheme could be ‘catastrophic for nature’
Jamie Honeywood Archant Norwich Norfolk
Conservationists and farmers in East Anglia fear possible “downgrades” to the government’s flagship environmental payments scheme could be “catastrophic for nature”.
The WildEast movement said it has been warned by government sources that the demands of Brexit and the financial cost of Covid-19 could force changes to the new Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS), due to be introduced in 2024 to replace the EU’s system of land-based subsidies.
The proposed system has three tiers, with the first paying farmers for simple actions such as planting cover crops or wildflower margins, while the second tier would help land managers collaborate to target environmental priorities over a wider area, and the third tier would focus on delivering “landscape scale” projects.
WildEast, which formed earlier this year with the ambition of returning 20pc of East Anglia’s land to nature, said it has been told that Defra’s immediate focus for ELMS is on Tier 1, and there is “a risk that support for more environmentally sustainable land management under Tiers 2 and 3 will be delayed, downgraded in terms of amounts of funding available, and/or may not transpire”.
It is encouraging farmers and landowners to write to Defra secretary George Eustice to seek assurances that an “ambitious scheme for Tiers 2 and 3”, is sufficiently funded and launched no later than Tier 1. It has written a letter which says: “It would be a huge lost opportunity to downgrade Tiers 2 and or 3. All evidence across all agencies measuring nature decline agree that Tier 1 and its current equivalent is simply not enough to have any impact on nature recovery, which is now a national emergency.”
Defra did not comment on whether changes to the upper tiers of ELMS were being considered, but said the scheme remains the “cornerstone of our future agricultural policy” to reward farmers for “public goods” such as environmental work.
Hugh Somerleyton, a founding trustee of WildEast and owner of the Somerleyton Estate near Lowestoft, said: “The overwhelming majority of farmers, of all sizes, are desperate to deliver nature recovery and we are keen to see [former environment secretary] Michael Gove’s vision of ‘public money for public goods’ come to fruition.
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“We understand that Covid-19 and Brexit are big factors which the government is grappling with, but this is one too. Nature is in a national state of emergency and action is needed now.
“We farmers have spent 25 years in a myriad of different schemes which were supposed to save nature, but that has failed. Gove’s new ELMS was inspirational and I think we speak for most of the farming community when we say we were right behind it, we wanted to deliver nature alongside great farming practices, and the idea that Tiers 2 and 3 might not happen would be catastrophic for nature.”
Argus Hardy, another WildEast trustee, added: “Everything the WildEast is about is trying to create scale. That is the only way we are going to get nature recovery, as it is essential to get a mosaic of connected habitats.
“We have got to stop looking at land in small parcels. We need to think as a whole landscape and that is where Tier 2 and Tier 3 looked like they would have created an opportunity for farmers to look over their own hedge and join together with their neighbours to integrate a vision for the region. I think to lose that vision is removing a serious opportunity for doing things differently.”
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Defra said it the final design of the scheme is being developed in collaboration with farmers and landowners.
A Defra spokesman said: “The Environmental Land Management scheme will create cleaner, greener landscapes, helping build towards the government’s environmental goals and net zero commitments.
“As we phase out direct payments ahead of the full roll out in 2024, we will offer financial assistance to help farmers prepare, and invest in ways to improve their productivity and manage the environment sustainably.”
During the seven-year transition away from direct payment subsidies, Defra said it will continue offering an improved Countryside Stewardship scheme – which currently pays farmers for environmental work – while testing “various possible elements of the ELMS” in tests and trials, ahead of rolling out the national pilot, which is still due to commence in late 2021 and run until 2024.
“We are taking a collaborative approach to designing our Environmental Land Management scheme,” said the spokesman. “We want to make sure we hear from our farmers, land managers and other stakeholders before making any final decisions.”
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