A "fog of uncertainty" around farm environment policy is causing financial confusion and hampering urgently-needed efforts to boost wildlife, Norfolk farmers were told.

Environmental protection and sustainable agriculture were among the key topics discussed at the 2022 Norfolk Farming Conference, held at the Norfolk Showground.

While the event highlighted efforts to conserve wildlife, improve soils and reduce pollution on Norfolk farms, it also raised concerns over the government's Environmental Land Management (ELM) schemes - aimed at rewarding farmers for providing these "public goods".

The new system of incentives is intended to replace the EU's land-based subsidies, which are already being phased out after Brexit.

But there is a growing sense of frustration over a lack of clarity on the three ELM tiers  - the entry-level Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI), the more targeted Local Nature Recovery tier, and the top-level Landscape Recovery tier, aimed at supporting groups of farmers with large-scale, long-term nature projects.

Eastern Daily Press: The 2022 Norfolk Farming Conference was held at the Norfolk Showground The 2022 Norfolk Farming Conference was held at the Norfolk Showground (Image: RNAA)

Conference speakers included Sir Dieter Helm, professor of economic policy at the University of Oxford and chairman of the Natural Capital Committee, an advisory body which helped the government develop its 25-year environment plan.

He said while the principle of "public money for public goods" had been enshrined in the Agriculture Act and the Environment Act, much more detail was needed on the flagship post-Brexit ELM schemes.

"Six years after Brexit, we have the three tiers, but we still have no idea what the weighting of the three tiers is," he said.

"My guess is that SFI will be the bulk of the money, but we don't know whether farmers are going to have to provide proper baselines, use digital technology to demonstrate delivery, whether people should sign up to it, or what form it will take.

"When it comes to the other two tiers, we have even less idea what it is about, and no real visibility about the money."

Prof Helm said recent reports that the existing Countryside Stewardship scheme would become the second ELM tier reinforced a feeling that the new policy would not be "revolutionarily different" to the EU's Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).

"In effect Defra has fallen back to what I would call 'CAP Mark 2'," he said.

"The question for Defra is whether they are prepared to get serious about delivering this agricultural policy.

"When things go wrong, and they clearly have, when we don't have a proper plan, there are two options: Muddle through and cobble together something to see if we can get through the next election and beyond, or use this as the opportunity to do it properly, do it for once in at least a decade or two, so that when people plant trees or change their crops, when they think about how biodiversity mixes into their farming practices, they actually know where they stand, and what they are going to get paid for.

"I think the really central issue is: What is the land use plan for our country? How much food are we going to produce? How much carbon offsets are we going to develop for woodlands? How much is going to be rewilded?

"The idea that this can just be the individual decision of individual farmers and landowners, in a fog of uncertainty about the policy framework, is frankly incredibly economically inefficent and, with respect to climate change and biodiversity, it won't work."

Eastern Daily Press: The 2022 Norfolk Farming Conference was held at the Norfolk ShowgroundThe 2022 Norfolk Farming Conference was held at the Norfolk Showground (Image: RNAA)

Individual farms' conservation work was illustrated at the conference, ranging from efforts to improve soil health on the Holkham Estate to rewilding at Wild Ken Hill in west Norfolk, and organic farming at Shimpling Park Farm near Bury St Edmunds.

There was also a discussion on the benefits of farmers and scientists working together to provide a baseline for "natural capital" discussions.

David Lyles, a farmer based near Burnham Market, collaborated with UEA ecologist Prof Paul Dolman to carry out an ambitious biodiversity audit on farmland on the north Norfolk coast.

It followed a similar audit in Breckland which identified almost 13,000 species, including many conservation priorities which required specific land management strategies to create the necessary habitats.

Prof Dolman said such data could help farmers make the best decisions on management practices and cultivations while navigating a complex "natural capital" landscape.

"Farmers are now being expected to deliver a whole host of public goods and ecosystem services, and they are being asked to make complex decisions around prescriptions for flood control, flood managment, wetland management, tree planting, carbon sequestration and delivering biodiversity," he said.

"They need to be able to see where biodiversity can benefit from decisions that have been taken for these other ecosystem services, or where will there be difficult trade-offs where the biodiversity and other ecosystem services require different management.

"To be able to understand these win-win situations and trade-offs we need to be able to better quantify the biodiversity."

The 2022 Norfolk Farming Conference, which brought 400 farmers and industry professionals to the Norfolk Showground, was hosted by the Royal Norfolk Agricultural Association and chaired by Agri-TechE director Dr Belinda Clarke.

It also discussed trade opportunities and challenges, water resources and flood mitigation challenges.

While Defra declined an invitation to send a minister to the event, Labour's shadow minister Daniel Zeichner spoke about the financial hardships caused by rising agricultural cost inflation, and the need for retailers to pay fairer prices to address an "imbalance of power" in the supply chain.

Eastern Daily Press: The 2022 Norfolk Farming Conference was held at the Norfolk Showground The 2022 Norfolk Farming Conference was held at the Norfolk Showground (Image: RNAA)