A former environment secretary has urged the UK government not to ditch its nature restoration farming schemes, as the Guardian can reveal that the more ambitious parts of the post-EU support program are set to be dropped.
George Eustice made the intervention, saying farmers are keen to be signed up to schemes where they improve biodiversity and that his replacement, Ranil Jayawardena, should not scrap them.
When Britain joined the EU, farmers were paid subsidies based on the area they managed. The government decided after Brexit that farmers in England should be paid for providing “public goods” rather than for the amount of land they use. The Environmental Land Management Scheme (Elms), drawn up by former Environment Secretary Michael Gove, aimed to encourage farmers to create space for rare species as well as increase carbon absorption to help England reach its net zero target.
Last week, it was revealed that the future of the grant program was under threat when it was placed in a review with an emphasis on productivity over nature restoration.
The Guardian now understands the review is set to remove the reclamation parts of the scheme. There are currently three legs to Elms. One is the Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI), which gives farmers money to farm sustainably, such as looking after animals properly and improving soil health by using cover crops and not using as many pesticides. Local Nature Reclamation (LNR) is about creating forests, wetlands, hedgerows and working with local nature groups to do so. Finally is landscape restoration (LR), where large landowners or clusters of farmers work with the government to create ambitious rewilding schemes.
It is understood that LR and LNR are under threat, the two parts of the scheme that are about improving biodiversity and a key part of meeting the country’s net zero target.
Eustice urged the government to keep the schemes, which are to replace an existing nature program called countryside stewardship. He said: “We now have 33,000 farmers in landscape agreements. That’s about 40% of all farmers covering about half of the agricultural land. There was a 40% increase in demand after the last year. I always insisted that we just had to loosen the reins and let the budget follow the demand for that arrangement, whatever it might be. If they believe in markets, they should let the budget follow the demand.”
He added that his plan would have ensured a smooth transition for farmers to ambitious restoration schemes that would have improved the environment and helped farmers get their subsidies.
“We had planned to simply convert all existing CS agreements to LNR agreements in 2024 to provide the best possible transition and have a larger scheme that already has maybe more than half the farmers in it. It would have been a good example of evolution rather than stop-start revolution. Instead of having everyone get off the CS train and connect to LNR, they would stay on the same train and arrive at LNR. But if they choke the budget on CS, they will destroy that plan and send everything into reverse,” he said.
James Robinson, an organic dairy farmer from the Lake District, said: “The local regeneration part of the Elms has the potential to make the biggest change to habitats and biodiversity. It can bring together neighboring agriculture through existing connected habitats such as rivers and forests, it can challenge farms to do something really positive at the corporate level.
“As farmers, we are in a unique and privileged position to make a difference for biodiversity, new wildlife habitats, clean air and water, flood mitigation and carbon sequestration, all of which improve our communities. And by getting farmers to see the benefits by farming alongside nature, we can show the government, businesses and consumers that it is the only truly sustainable way to farm.”
Jake Fiennes, conservation manager at Holkham National Nature Reserve and Farm in north Norfolk, said: “The only way we’re going to make this work is if nature is integrated into our farming business. People who have invested in natural capital have actually improved and pioneered nature recovery.If we are to see turbocharged nature recovery in our agricultural landscapes, we need the schemes to be a significant reward for farmers.
“Less productive land should be given over to nature restoration and farmers should be rewarded for it. The government should keep its nature restoration schemes and fund them properly.”
Jayawardena is expected to outline some of his priorities for agriculture at the Conservative party conference, including an emphasis on growing more British lettuce and expanding the use of greenhouses.
The Guardian asked a No 10 source several times whether they were committed to local nature restoration and landscape restoration schemes, but they refused to answer. Instead, they said they were committed to the broad idea of agricultural regulation and reform.
They said: “The Prime Minister is committed to continuing the recovery of British nature. There are no plans to scrap our farming schemes.”