Pilot scheme will pay farmers to protect nature

A farmer ploughing his field at Bayfield

Defra has published the payment rates and entry criteria for the pilot of its Sustainable Farming Incentive, which will pay farmers for environmental work - Credit: Antony Kelly

East Anglian farmers have been urged to get involved in testing a new post-Brexit payments scheme which will reward their efforts to protect nature and tackle climate change.

Defra has invited applications from farmers to trial its Sustainable Farming Incentive, one of the three tiers of the planned environmental land management scheme (ELMS) set to replace EU subsidies which are being phased out Brexit.

The department is looking for “several hundred farmers” to take part in the pilot scheme, and has published long-awaited details on the rates it will pay for producing "public goods" such as improving soil health and hedgerow management.

Farmers taking part will initially be able to select from eight "standards" to build their own farm agreements. For example, an “arable and horticultural land standard” will pay up to £74/ha for work including providing areas of tall scrub for nesting and sheltering wildlife, encouraging crop pest predators and using precision application of fertilisers.

And a new “hedgerow standard” will pay up to £24/100m for including more trees in hedges and creating parallel buffer strips.

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Defra will be accepting “expressions of interest” from Monday, March 15. Eligible farmers must be a recipient of the current Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) subsidy and the land entered must not already funded by an agri-environment scheme.

Gary Ford, East Anglia regional director for the National Farmers' Union (NFU) said as the first phase of the pilot only includes eight standards, it was important that further development phases include areas such as net zero and animal health and welfare.

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“Like Defra, the NFU wants the Sustainable Farming Incentive to be taken up by most English farms," he said. "We look forward to seeing further details as soon as they are available to ensure potential applicants for the pilot can make informed business decisions.

“We understand the pilot is very much a work in progress. It’s important that East Anglian farmers get involved to help test and develop something that works and will be accessible to all farm businesses across our region.

"The new scheme must be engaging, simple to enter and deliver and operate effectively alongside food production.

“Every farm business is unique, so the scheme needs to be structured so that it offers something for every farmer.”

NFU East Anglia regional director Gary Ford

NFU East Anglia regional director Gary Ford - Credit: Pagepix

Defra says the pilot will pave the way for the full SFI roll-out to begin in 2022, initially for all farmers currently in receipt of BPS payments.

Environment secretary George Eustice said: “The Sustainable Farming Incentive will allow farmers to take a fresh look at the land they farm, the natural assets they have and decide what will work best for their own individual holding.

“It will reward approaches to farm husbandry such as encouraging integrated pest management, improving soil health and enhancing hedgerows. Assets that were previously dubbed ineligible features will finally have their value recognised and rewarded.”

But some farming and environmental groups have questioned how the SFI will interact with the two other planned components of ELMS– Local Nature Recovery and Landscape Recovery.

Dr Richard Benwell, chief executive of Wildlife and Countryside Link, a coalition of 57 environment and wildlife bodies, said some options under consideration in the SFI pilot were already regulatory requirements, and suggested they may not achieve real environmental improvement.

“They could gobble up vital funds needed to support more environmentally ambitious farming and land management businesses,” he said.


Arable and horticultural land standard


Arable and horticultural soils standard


Improved grassland standard


Improved grassland soils standard


Low and no input grassland standard


Hedgerow standard


On-farm woodland standard


Waterbody buffering standard


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