Could East Anglia’s farmers achieve more for wildlife if they were only paid by results?
- Credit: Eastern Daily Press © 2016
Would farmers spend more time and effort ensuring their environmental plots delivered for wildlife if they were only paid on results?
That is one of the questions driving an East Anglian pilot for a new agri-environment scheme, whose results were discussed at a conference at Wingfield Barns, near Diss.
The Results Based Agri-Environment Payment Scheme (RBAPS) has been running for two years in an area stretching from Norwich to Stowmarket, and from Swaffham to Halesworth – one of only two national trials, with the other in Yorkshire.
Rather than simply being paid to sow plots of wild bird seed mixes or pollen and nectar-rich flowers – as would be the case in existing environmental stewardship schemes – the 15 participating farmers were paid on results instead, measured by placing a square-metre quadrat on 10 'representative' areas of their plot.
If they find a target plant species in at least five of those squares, it could be considered to be present, and ticked on a record sheet – attracting a payment.
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The more species are present, the higher the payment, with tiers going up to £842 for five or more sown plants found producing seed, or £705 for flowering pollen and nectar species. But there is an element of risk and reward, as if no plants were recorded which met the criteria, there was no payment.
Vicky Robinson, from the Natural England RBAPS team, said the results for the first two years showed environmental performance is higher using the 'payment by results' approach, compared to control plots being managed under other schemes.
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Winter bird feed plots had more seed-producing crops, she said, so the average payment tier achieved was considerably higher in both years of the pilot. The payments achieved for pollen and nectar mixes in the trial were also higher than control plots, although the differences were not so pronounced.
She said farmers valued the incentives to produce better results, and the flexibility of a scheme which contains no prescriptions for how the targets must be achieved, allowing them the freedom to use their own local knowledge of soil type and climate to get the best results. But there were concerns over the risk of no payment in the event of a crop failure.
'One of the interesting points was this zero payment rate,' she said. 'I had quite a lot of challenge over that in the two years. I had a lot people saying it is too much risk and they didn't want to do it, but the results show that the farmers have produced crops that perform and they are nowhere near the zero payment rate... so the question is whether this is a perception or a reality, because the result is showing that this maybe it is not quite the risk that it appears to be.'
Visitors to the meeting were shown a series of comments from participating farmers, including: 'Simply, you have more to lose, so you take greater care'.
One of the farmers in the pilot scheme is John Sanderson, who runs a 450-acre mixed farm at South Elmham in the Waveney Valley.
'I was attracted to 'payment by results' because it puts more emphasis on the farmer's own decisions,' he said.
'I think balancing the risk and reward is very important – we are treating it [the trial plot] like any other crop and that is an important part of it.
'The learning process was very important and, having learned how to do it, we want to do it better.
'Going forward in this brave new world of post-Brexit agriculture, God knows where we will be but, wherever we are, public benefit is going to be important and we need to take that in mind going forward.
'In my farming life I have watched so many species disappear and I hope we can turn the corner.
'We can make a difference, and I hope farmers will embrace the new culture of 'public goods', and I hope payment by results will be a part of that because it has been very valuable to me – I have learned a lot.'