Could new green payments unlock region's rewilding ambitions?

WildEast founder Lord Somerleyton and NFU East Anglia director Gary Ford

WildEast founder Lord Somerleyton (left) and NFU East Anglia director Gary Ford have called for more details on the government's 'landscape recovery' scheme - Credit: Wild Ken Hill / Archant / Pagepix

New environmental payments have been launched which could help "pick the lock" of rewilding ambitions for East Anglia - but both conservationists and farmers want to see more details.

Defra has revealed elements of its three-tiered Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS), designed to replace EU subsidies being phased out after Brexit.

Instead of being paid based on the amount of land, farmers will instead be rewarded for providing "public goods", including major new wildlife habitats.

Up to 15 pilot projects will be funded this year under the "Landscape Recovery" tier, aimed at supporting large, long-term nature projects including establishing woodlands, restoring peatlands and wetlands and creating new wildlife reserves.

Groups of farmers can put forward projects covering landscapes of between 500 and 5,000 hectares, and successful bids will be chosen by a team of experts during the summer.

There will also be a new "Local Nature Recovery" scheme trialled in 2023 paying farmers to work together on measures such as reducing pollution, curbing flood risk and planting trees and hedges.

The government claims the two new schemes will restore up to 300,000 hectares of habitat nationally by 2042, helping threatened species including the curlew and water vole.

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The announcement was cautiously welcomed by farming and conservation groups, who called for more detail on the payment rates and entry criteria.

Hugh Somerleyton of the Somerleyton Estate near Lowestoft, is a founding trustee of WildEast, which has set a 50-year goal of returning 20pc of East Anglia to nature.

WildEast founder and trustee Hugh Somerleyton with one of the Exmoor ponies on the Somerleyton Estate

WildEast founder and trustee Hugh Somerleyton with one of the Exmoor ponies within the 1,000-acre rewilding project on the Somerleyton Estate - Credit: Danielle Booden

He said: "I accept that the devil will be in the detail - but the broad principle is really good and I think these policies are one big part of the lock picked to allow for landscape scale recovery.

"We have already seen an enormous amount of change and there has been a growing shift in the farming and nature community. But it takes time, and now we need culture and society to catch up with it.

"This is about putting climate and nature recovery front and centre in everything we do.

"The pushback you often hear from farmers and other groups is: What about food? It is a totally reasonable question.

"But we are in a position where we have got to adapt to producing more food on less land through things like enterprise stacking and regenerative farming practices. 

"It is entirely possible, but it does also require a change of diet, and reducing on our reliance on cheap grain, milk and meat."

NFU East Anglia regional director Gary Ford. Picture: Pagepix

NFU East Anglia regional director Gary Ford - Credit: Pagepix

Gary Ford, East Anglia regional director for the National Farmers' Union (NFU) also urged ministers to bring clarity to farmers facing the imminent loss of EU subsidies, currently distributed under the Basic Payment Scheme (BPS).

“While it is encouraging that sustainable food production is recognised within the announcement, there is still a lack of detail on how this fits in with the schemes’ stated ambitions to improve farm biodiversity, restore peatlands and manage woodlands," he said.

“This is preventing farmers across our region from making crucial long-term decisions that are essential to them running viable and profitable businesses.

“There appears to be a lack of options for tenant farmers to get involved and this must be addressed urgently.

“It is also clear that neither Local Nature Recovery nor Landscape Recovery will be widely available to farmers over the next three years, making it difficult to replace the falling income from BPS."

The third ELMS tier, the "Sustainable Farming Incentive" which supports individual farms to introduce environmentally-friendly and soil-restoring practices, was announced last year.

The three strands of the new scheme are expected to each receive roughly a third of the £2.4bn annual government budget for farm payments by 2028.

Environment secretary George Eustice said: "Through our new schemes, we are going to work with farmers and land managers to halt the decline in species, reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, increase woodland, improve water and air quality and create more space for nature."

Woodlands have been returned to nature at Wild Ken Hill in west Norfolk

Woodlands have been returned to nature at Wild Ken Hill in west Norfolk - Credit: Wild Ken HIll/AW PR

Collective responsibility

Norfolk is already home to major rewilding projects, such as the one at Wild Ken Hill near King's Lynn, which which will host the BBC's Winterwatch programme later this month.

There is also a growing number of farming clusters working together for nature in areas including Breckland and the Wensum and Waveney river valleys.

Lord Somerleyton said while the new payment schemes rewarded collaboration, individual responsibility would also be key to the region's nature recovery.

"Over the last couple of years we have all demonstrated that we can behave with individual responsibility for collective benefit in terms of the pandemic, social distancing and locking down," he said. "Collective responsibility is now the norm, so can we do it for nature recovery?

"It is about taking action, whether it is a farm, or an allotment or a back garden, and talking to the person over the hedge or the garden wall to start to say: What can we do? Can we put up bird boxes, or look at different energy sources?

"Collaboration is the key, but it is still about individuals acting collectively."