Guest Blog: Agri-environment – a need for detailed scrutiny, by Steve Peel

Agri-Environment schemes pay for grass margins around arable fields ©Miles King

 

 

 

 

 

 

As the process of changing from an European agriculture policy into a UK one starts, I’m delighted to publish a guest blog by former Natural England grassland specialist Steve Peel. Steve looks at how successful agri-environment schemes have been (in England) and how they could be improved.

The state of UK nature

 

‘Our wonderful nature is in trouble and needs our help as never before’. So wrote Sir David Attenborough in the foreword to the State of Nature report (Hayhow et al, 2016). The report went on to say ‘Many factors have resulted in changes to the UK’s wildlife over recent decades, but policy-driven agricultural change was by far the most significant driver of declines’.

 

Yet 30 years ago agri-environment schemes were initiated across the UK with the specific intention, amongst others, of halting and reversing such wildlife declines. And these schemes were expanded over that period such that they were generally recognised as among the most ambitious in Europe. In England alone payments to farmers in these schemes have been approximately £400 million per year since 2005. So have these schemes been ineffective and if so, why? At this time, when post-Brexit policies are being formulated, the answers to these questions are crucial for the future state of nature.

 

Critiques of agri-environment

 

Ecologists have been publishing studies and critiques of schemes for many years. These tend to be at a European scale. Kleijn et al (2006) concluded that schemes gave only marginal or moderately positive effects on biodiversity and that it was not possible to tell whether this was due to the measures being ineffective, sub-optimally implemented by farmers or applied in the wrong location. Batary et al (2015) concluded that the general lesson is that schemes can be effective but are expensive and need to be carefully designed and targeted.

 

In his very engaging British Ecological Society presidential address in December 2015 Bill Sutherland suggested that 34-58% of agri-environment interventions were ineffective, with resultant squandering of significant amounts of money and effort on well-intended but ineffectual and largely untested land management interventions. This was a global critique but the audience may have concluded that UK schemes have a weak science base. Consequently Clare Pinches and myself gave presentations at BES December 2016, seeking to explain the schemes in more detail.

 

Species-rich grassland options – design

 

We focused on Higher Level Stewardship (HLS), launched in 2006 and aimed at maintaining and restoring high-value environmental features. Grassland options and their associated supplements represent over 40% of the total spend on HLS and we used as our example the HLS options for restoration and creation of species-rich grassland. The design and targeting of these options was based on a long series of experiments and surveys within the Defra Agri-environment R&D programme and summarised by Pywell et al (2012). This showed that:

  • The main abiotic constraint on restoration is soil nutrient status, particularly phosphorus (P). Hence the options were targeted at sites with low P and/or other characteristics imposing stress.
  • The main biotic constraint is lack of seeds and suitable establishment niches. Hence the scheme funded the whole cost of seed purchase and the option guidance stressed that seeds usually need to be introduced and sufficient bare soil needs to be created.

 

Outcomes

 

These options can work brilliantly: in 2010/11 Natural England advisers identified 73 sites that they thought had been most successful and these were independently surveyed (Hewins, 2013; Wilson et al, 2013). Most were creation rather than restoration. Eighty five % met or exceeded the minimum threshold to qualify as BAP Priority Habitat and typically this took 8-15 years.

 

But what do independent surveys of random samples of agreements show? Creation of species-rich grassland from arable appears to have been much more successful than in earlier schemes. But restoration of existing grassland, on which we have spent ten times as much (£113 million), has been very disappointing – see table 1.

 

Table 1. HLS Option HK7 Restoration of species-rich grassland.

Change in condition 2006 to 2014

Condition improved 23%
Condition remained the same 66%
Condition declined 11%
Source: Monitoring project LM0443 – awaiting publication

 

After 8 years in an option specifically designed to restore species-richness, with payments of at least £200/ha/year, less than a quarter had improved in condition, and some had actually declined. Likely reasons for these poor results are that 27% of the sites had a P index of 2 or more – higher than optimum. And most importantly 81% of sites had no record of seeds being introduced. This sample was of agreements set up in the first year of HLS and might be ascribed to teething problems, but similar issues were identified in later agreements eg Mountford et al 2013.

 

Generic quality problems

 

There were concerns about the quality of HLS delivery from the start in 2006 and these were recognised by the Making Environmental Stewardship More Effective (MESME) project in which 18 recommendations on quality were agreed by Defra (Natural England, 2013). These included the need for:

  • Better agreement set-up, more tailored to the site. (Includes choice of site, and need for seed).
  • Better QA, including peer review by experienced colleagues and national in-house monitoring of quality (c.100 agreements/ year).
  • Better aftercare: regular visits Assess progress, feedback to agreement-holder, record results, follow through, c. 5% of visits with an experienced colleague.

 

Boatman et al (2014) studied HLS outcomes and the relationship with adviser input. They found, as did Mountford et al, that performance was good for many of the metrics, with the majority of agreements working well. But this covered all outcomes including, for example, historic environment and landscape. The situation was less satisfactory for the more demanding biodiversity outcomes such as on grassland. There were positive correlations between outcomes and:

  • the quality of the agreement set-up
  • agreement holder knowledge

Seventy-one percent of agreement holders said that the advice they had received had been important or very important to the successful delivery of their HLS agreement. However, many agreement holders were concerned about the number of changes in project officers. In 7 years only 24% of agreements had kept the same adviser, and 23% had 3 or more advisers.

A telling comment made in that report was ‘Lack of follow up visits and changes in adviser personnel led to a sense among agreement holders that early expectations in terms of support were not fulfilled throughout the life of the agreement. In some cases this led to increasing disillusionment and declining commitment as the agreement progressed’.

 

Learning the lessons

 

Lawton et al (2010) concluded that England does not have a coherent and resilient ecological network and that we need ‘more, bigger, better and joined’ core sites. In response government said ‘We want to promote an ambitious, integrated approach, creating a resilient ecological network across England’ (Defra, 2011). This intention has recently been reiterated (Natural England, 2016) and since over 70% of England is agricultural land much of the restoration, creation and management of sites will have to be done by and with farmers.

 

The evidence from HLS shows that even if we have a farming scheme soundly based on science it will not work well enough unless quality is inbuilt and it is managed and resourced sufficiently to sustain a relationship of trust between adviser and land manager.

 

The signs are that Natural England and Defra are not keen to be open and honest about this evidence:

  • There has been no follow-up reporting on the MESME recommendations to improve the quality of agreements: no reports on the internal QA, no reports on aftercare.
  • The written submission to House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee on the Future of the natural environment after the EU referendum (UK Parliament, 2016) quoted positive impacts on landscape character – a relatively straightforward outcome to achieve – and showed that the scheme (mainly arable options) has the potential to have national-scale effects on avian population growth rates. But it, and the witness evidence by Rob Cooke, was silent on the biodiversity objectives of the HLS grassland, moorland and other habitat options on which two thirds of the budget have been spent.
  • Giving evidence in July 2017 to the House of Lords select committee on the NERC Act, Alan Law (NE Strategy Director) did not take the opportunity to correct this (UK Parliament, 2017).

 

The story of agri-environment since 2005 has been one of tragically unfulfilled potential. Basic objectives have, as in predecessor schemes, been widely achieved: grassland and other habitats not ploughed up or agriculturally improved, landscape features such as stone walls and buildings maintained and restored, grassy margins round arable fields created. And there are many examples of much more challenging objectives being achieved. But there are also many, many examples of agreements which do not reach the standards required to deliver the Lawton vision. On arable land this is often because uptake of the more demanding options has been too low. In contrast on grassland, where over 40% of the HLS budget has been spent, uptake of demanding options has been high but outcomes have often been woefully poor.

 

This should not be seen as an indictment of NE advisers – they are committed and hard-working. But they have not been appropriately deployed. When HLS was launched in 2005/6 they were told to go out and make sure they spent the budget. This resulted in many agreements being rushed through. Even once the scheme was more embedded the message from above was very much focused on number of agreements and area of land covered with far too little focus on quality when setting up agreements. This might not have mattered so much if there had been adequate aftercare but the HLS design, which was based on 3 visits in 10 years with Indicators of Success assessed on each visit, was not delivered. Some agreements were not visited at all until it was too late to change the outcomes. And that was before the major staff cutbacks of recent years.

 

This matters because not only is the same thing happening with the new scheme, Countryside Stewardship, but it is likely to happen all over again in any post-Brexit scheme. The sort of outcomes required to deliver Lawton – create new habitat, restore and extend existing habitat – require skills which are not part of commercial farm practice, as well as timeliness and attention to detail. Expecting this to be achieved on the scale required with the resources deployed in HLS, let alone the current reduced resources, is unrealistic. Yet that is what policy-makers and ministers will expect unless the evidence of past delivery is made so crystal clear to everyone that they cannot risk repetition. And, crucially, if the necessary resources are not available then instead of spreading them thinner and thinner and failing to deliver in many places, admit it and at least deliver good value for money in some places. This is surely what is required of ministers and public servants: openness and honesty (Committee on Standards in Public Life, 1995).

 

References

Batary, P, Dicks, L.V, Kleijn, D & Sutherland, W.J. 2015. The role of agri-environment schemes in conservation and environmental management. Conservation Biology, 29, 4, 1006–1016.

Boatman, N. et al 2014. Agreement scale monitoring of Environmental Stewardship 2013-4: Assessing the impact of advice and support on the environmental outcomes of HLS agreements. Natural England Contract reference LM0432.

Committee on Standards in Public Life 1995. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/the-7-principles-of-public-life

DEFRA 2011. The Natural Choice: securing the value of nature. CM8082.

Hayhow D.B. et al 2016. State of Nature 2016. The State of Nature partnership.

Hewins, E. 2013. A survey of selected agri-environment grassland creation and restoration sites: Part 1 – 2010 survey. Natural England Commissioned Report 107.

Kleijn, D. et al. 2006. Mixed biodiversity benefits of agri-environment schemes in five European countries. Ecology Letters 9: 243–254.

Lawton et al 2010. Making Space for Nature: A review of England’s Wildlife Sites and Ecological Network. Report to Defra.

Mountford, J.O. & Cooke, A.I. (eds), 2013. Monitoring the outcomes of Higher Level Stewardship: results of a 3-year agreement monitoring programme. Natural England Commissioned Report 114.

Natural England 2013. MESME: report on the final outcomes. http://publications.naturalengland.org.uk/publication/5662762122870784?category=4679230129438720

Natural England 2016. Conservation 21: Natural England’s conservation strategy for the 21st century. NE642.

Pywell, R.F. et al 2012. Restoring species-rich grassland: principles and techniques. Aspects of Applied Biology, 115, 11-21.

Wilson, P., Wheeler, B., Reed, M. & Strange, A. 2013. A survey of selected agri-environment grassland and heathland creation and restoration sites: Part 2. Natural England Commissioned Report 107.

UK Parliament 2016. http://data.parliament.uk/WrittenEvidence/CommitteeEvidence.svc/EvidenceDocument/Environmental%20Audit/The%20Future%20of%20the%20Natural%20Environment%20after%20the%20EU%20Referendum/written/38368.html

UK Parliament 2017. http://data.parliament.uk/writtenevidence/committeeevidence.svc/evidencedocument/natural-environment-and-rural-communities-act-2006-committee/natural-environment-and-rural-communities-act-2006/oral/69287.html

Steve Peel was a senior specialist in eco-agronomy with particular responsibility for grassland, for Natural England and predecessor bodies, prior to his retirement in March 2017. He worked on agri-environment schemes for 30 years and chaired the group that designed the grassland options in Environmental Stewardship and Countryside Stewardship. He is a past president of the British Grassland Society and a founder member of the British Ecological Society’s Agricultural Ecology Group. The first three quarters of this text was published in the British Ecological Society Bulletin, vol 48:2, July 2017.

 

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About Miles King

UK conservation professional, writing about nature, politics, life. All views are my own and not my employers. I don't write on behalf of anybody else.
This entry was posted in Agri-Environment Schemes, agriculture, Brexit, Common Agricultural Policy, guest blogs, Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

59 Responses to Guest Blog: Agri-environment – a need for detailed scrutiny, by Steve Peel

  1. auraengus says:

    for a discussion of environment or indeed any policy or policies concerning increasing biodiversity to ignore the impact of chemical treatments and the inherited impoverished condition of farmland is a serious omission of the major factor in natural species decline. Margins get sprayed – deliberately or otherwise.

  2. Rob Yorke says:

    Nuanced stuff from a level headed expert. This stands out “…even if we have a farming scheme soundly based on science it will not work well enough unless quality is inbuilt and it is managed and resourced sufficiently to sustain a relationship of trust between adviser and land manager.”
    Evidence it can work but how come farmers don’t do it? An area woefully unexplored – and a subject that very much interests me. See here and links to research http://robyorke.co.uk/2016/07/finding-agora/
    The reason why farmer clusters (see my Times letter last week) work is because farmers pick their own advisors as well as select the outcomes required, which tends to mirror those required by Nat England at al, in habitat and species.
    A new facilitation fund has just opened from NE for those schemes that can deliver the landscape scale stuff.
    Best, Rob

    • Miles King says:

      thanks Rob. You suggest Farmer Clusters are the answer – but is there really any firm evidence that they are making a difference for wildlife?

      • Miles. Come to the conference 12 Oct in London and find out https://www.gwct.org.uk/blogs/news/2017/september/meet-our-farmer-cluster-conference-speakers-james-phillips/
        Do take a little time to read my piece and links, however much we find the evidence (Bill Sutherland et al v good), if farmers can’t engage/connect with it or it’s unworkable, it’s worthless to wildlife.
        I find this a moot point: conservation NGO crafted 25 yrs of AESs (which channelled public money into them) then slam farmers in State of Nature report for farming practices back in the 70 and 80s. Cack-handed social skills that gained members while alienating those that can deliver for wildlife https://www.rothamsted.ac.uk/news/state-nature-report-views-rothamsted-research
        Aye

      • Miles King says:

        thanks Rob. I read your piece when it was published. I didnt find any evidence that farmer clusters have made a difference for wildlife – perhaps it is too early, as Phil suggests.

        There are many ways to engage (not keen on that word) farmers in managing land for wildlife, farmer clusters is just one in a long line of such approaches. You might be surprised to learn I have helped in a small way with one farmer cluster.

        If you’re suggesting AE schemes were crafted by NGOs to channel public money to them, then you are way off beam. I have been involved with AE schemes from a number of different perspectives pretty much since they started, so I speak with quite a lot of experience about them. And no-one is slamming today’s farmers for the actions of their parents or grandparents.

        The conference looks interesting; I might come along and report on it.

      • No, not implying money to NGOs but into ‘shallow and wide’ entry level schemes that, as Steve confirms, felt good but didn’t deliver that much. The point of my blog was not just clusters but ‘getting into the heads’ of land managers to work out best ways to create schemes that deliver (not just tick academic evidence boxes) wildlife. Working together with farmers to utilise their onsite ‘local’ skills http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/aab.12327/full.
        Best

      • Miles King says:

        the wide and shallow ELS was certainly pushed by the farming bodies – who saw it as a way of getting the subsidies they felt were rightfully theirs, while ticking the “environment” box. There was no quality control at all on what sort of land was entered into ELS – again this was deliberate scheme design influenced (or probably developed) by farming bodies. Consequently the types of grassland entered into the Entry Level Scheme (with generous payment rates) varied from SSSI through to worn out rye-grass leys. Some NGOs did support ELS on the basis that large-scale uptake would help widespread species that weren’t too fussy about their habitat needs.

        For a bit of ancient history, I wrote this report for Plantlife in 2001 and it included Wildlife Link’s “greenprint” recommendations for a new AE scheme. I didn’t agree with all of them but it wasn’t up to me, I was just the contractor.

        OK perhaps you weren’t pushing just Farmer Clusters, but they are being pushed now, and pushed hard. Before we set that Hare running, let’s look at what the ones that currently exist, or have existed, have achieved.

    • Steve Peel says:

      Thanks Rob. Getting farmers together is great and I’ve advocated it for decades. But if they are to access public funds there will have to be some interaction with Natural England or whoever runs the scheme. My point is that this needs to involve appropriate input to set things up at the start, ongoing dialogue, and transparency about how well it is working.

    • Nimby says:

      At the risk of sounding like a skeptic “pick your own” can’t fail can it?

      Piper paid to play tune, like letting parliamentarians sorting their own expense scandal out, or maybe the bankers expectation that the public would bail their ‘industry’ out (ok pretty extreme analogies but I’ve observed breach of compliance and NE let ‘agri-industrialists’ get away with it.

      Given many demands on the public purse, IMHO there needs to be independent assessment to persuade the public that it’s money well spent?

      Might consideration be given to some kind of national land use strategy and target support to the various priorities? Oh, bit like landowners trying to get their holdings into development / housing allocations to increase value?

      Excellent that this post has prompted so many responses, great discussion ….

  3. phil wilson says:

    Two points very briefly. 1. We need to be patient. Semi-natural systems don’t respond instantly – it can take >20 years for grasslands to show a consistent trajectory of change in response to management. 2. Consider what our countryside would be like in the absence of agri-environment schemes. If nothing else, AE schemes have done a huge amount to slow the attrition of biodiversity and semi-natural habitats in the UK. I completely agree though that sucess depends to a large extent on individual guidance and advice from experts in the conservation agencies. This is often absent or inadequate. My personal experience is that we have been in stewardship schemes since 2004 and during that period the only visit we have received from an NE staff member was when we joined HLS in 2013.

    • Miles King says:

      thanks Phil.

      If you look at the photo I put at the top of the piece, that margin has, as far as I can tell, been in one form or another of agri-environment for over 20 years. It is still dominated by nettles and hogweed.

      Conversely, in June I visited German flood-meadows which had taken only 10 years from arable field to very species rich flood meadow. See this presentation for more details

      It is possible to achieve big changes for wildlife in relatively short periods of time – but only for some habitats, and some species. And it depends on having expert guidance for land managers, plus a good incentive for them to follow that guidance.

      I agree that the countryside would look different had there been no agri-environment over the last 30 years. However I see it more of a stay of execution. The question now is whether we should continue on the same trajectory, given that there will be far smaller resources available.

    • Steve Peel says:

      Phil I know you are a very patient man! But as a major monitoring contractor yourself (and author of one of my references) you must have seen the enormous variation in outcomes from schemes – some achieving brilliant results in just a few years and others going backwards. Yes in the absence of ae schemes the countryside would be the poorer but, as a taxpayer, do you really think we have got value for money? Don’t you find it frustrating that we have now had 12 years of targeted, flexible, well-funded schemes based on sound science and tested techniques that are coming nowhere near meeting their potential?

  4. The basic problem behind the failings of agri-environment schemes to deliver desired outcomes is one of care – if a farmer is to be expected to care about wildlife it is crucial that it is possible to operate a business along with increasing biodiversity. As long as the market (and the consumer) continues to make conflicting demands on farming the results will always be lacking.

    Farmers, just like wildlife, need continuity to thrive, and I agree with Steve that the rapid turnover of advisers does little to help. Ideally advisers need to build a relationship with farmers which benefits from local knowledge and of course knowing the land and wildlife is important. Farmers know their land, and advisers may know their wildlife, but what often is lacking on both sides is how the two interact.

    Rather than trying to make the market demand high nature value produce (not that we shouldn’t also strive to do that in the meantime) I believe that we should tailor agri-environment schemes to be more like the market – paying the farmer for what they produce, encouraging them to seek the best advice available and to think creatively in order to produce more.

    My own experience is that the area payments, and the restrictions that came with them under the old CSS, were unnecessary. The capital items such as water and fencing were more important in enabling more appropriate management, but these alone would have been enough to help us achieve the results we did, which were not monitored or assessed. I would suggest that the area payments should be replaced by a scheme that only pays out if objectives are met, with extra funds available if they are exceeded.

    Any new scheme also needs to take account of the pre-existing work done for wildlife so that farmers who already do more are rewarded for continuing good practise. The current schemes seem to favour farms that have done poorly in protecting wildlife & the environment in the past eg the Catchment Sensitive Farming scheme offered help to stop farms polluting and gave those who were already achieving desirable outcomes absolutely no help to continue.

    • Steve Peel says:

      Many thanks for this first hand experience and for explaining it in some detail. I’m glad you agree that developing a long-term relationship with an adviser is important. It sounds like you had an old CSS agreement – in the early days advisers had a lot of freedom to negotiate these, which was good, but my experience was that too many of them did not define desired outcomes clearly. They ‘paid for change’ which debarred farmers who were already doing the right thing. They didn’t define the starting point well and didn’t require or incentivise pro-active management to initiate restoration of habitats.

      We tried to correct all this when we designed HLS in 2002-2005, very much aware of the need to fit with commercial farming, and including NFU and other farming representatives on the design groups. We did in fact propose piloting ‘Payment by results (PBR)’ just as you advocate. But this was opposed by the NFU nationally and Defra would not pursue it. Belatedly this is now being piloted – grassland in Wensleydale and arable in Norfolk/Suffolk. I would very much like to see this succeed, and ministers seem keen. But I suspect this is partly because they think it will be cheaper to deliver; done properly I very much doubt if it would be, because the pilot suggests:
      a) a lot of explanation and discussion is needed at the outset and agreements need to be carefully baselined and tailored
      b) obviously there has to be detailed assessment of the outcomes. This is particularly difficult for mobile species (insects, birds)
      So I think a hybrid scheme, combining PBR with more conventional payments, is likely to be most practical.

      I’m not sure, though, that I can agree with you on two of your main points:
      1 The demands of production inevitably conflicting with delivering biodiversity. I cite option HK7 – restoration of species-rich grassland – and the requirement to place on low soil P sites. This sort of land already has low production and with a payment of at least £200/ha I can’t see that profit would be reduced.
      2 Just offer capital payments and don’t set any restrictions on management. But often the site will be of considerable value for diversity of habitat/ species and this could be damaged or destroyed by fertiliser, pesticides or cultivations.
      I may have misunderstood your thinking here; if so, apologies.

      My key point is that whatever scheme we have, including complete or partial PBR, there needs to be effective initial and ongoing liaison between the land manager and the delivery organisation, and honesty about the results.

      • My original reply, posted last night, seems to have not worked, possibly as a result of a dodgy internet connection, so I’ll try to summarise quickly.

        On point 1 I meant how there is always a compromise to be made in that what the market wants in terms of crops and animals doesn’t necessarily meet the requirements of ‘conservation produce’, for want of a better term, and as such the two are always competing to a degree. You can mitigate for the market with higher payments but that is, IMO, wasteful, when the market could be improved.

        On point 2, from my experience of CSS we faced the problem of the grazing dates meaning that we couldn’t achieve a sufficient level of grazing in the small window available and the non-CSS land was then grazed more than it should have been. The result was both under and over grazing on the same farm, and insufficient stock numbers to be either viable or practical.

        The latter problem applies not just to HLS but also many protected sites and nature reserves. If it isn’t practical, understandably, it doesn’t happen.

      • Steve Peel says:

        Thanks for the further explanation. Yes I see the problem with the mainstream market – I get the impression you need to sell direct or at least via non-mainstream channels. And this is time-consuming and needs different skills from farming.

        Re grazing prescriptions if your agreement was in HLS it should have been very flexible and based on sward height and structure rather than stocking rate. If your objective was ground-nesting birds then yes you’d have to limit stocking in the nesting season and graze much more heavily from july. I’d be very interested to know more about your particular experience on this but maybe take it ‘offline’. My email is stephenpeel97@gmail.com

      • Thanks – I’ll be in touch.

        The HLS agreement I am working on, HK13, was failing due to lack of grazing – it had a requirement ‘do not graze cattle between 1 Nov and 30 April’, which didn’t at all fit in with what it needed to achieve the sward heights with the grazing animals available. It was all achieveable in theory, but with so much grazing available locally it was never going to attract graziers. I think any future schemes need to be more localised and realistic as they also heavily influence how non-HLS land is managed.

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  6. Nimby says:

    Are there any best practice examples in the Humberhead Levels that have been running for somewhere between 10 & the 30 years cited for the scheme(s)? There are perhaps ‘demonstration’ plots but I struggle to locate any genuine projects. But, ever an agnostic I’m happy to receive evidence to persuade me that there are some genuine ‘guardians of wildlife’ [not just countryside as it is perhaps a subjective description, different things to different people].

    Sadly too many of my observations have shown that as soon as the cash flow stops the hedgerows are grubbed out & the margins back into cultivation. As for species rich meadows, the pastoral landscape once commonplace in the HHLs has been lost to industrialisation as small family run farms are squeezed out.

    From observations in the HHLs there needs to be a complete review and reform because IMHO payments have failed wildlife, farmers (not industrialists) and the people who funded them.

  7. Lisa Schneidau says:

    Hi Miles and Steve, thanks for the piece.

    Interesting that the issue of bureaucracy hasn’t been mentioned. The current agri-environment schemes are creaking and groaning with over-complication, unnecessary rules and hundreds of pages of paperwork. This is putting many landowners off from applying in the first place. Accountability, and farmers taking responsibility for their schemes and the outcomes, are good. Endless pedantry, unworkable prescriptions and inflexibility are really negative and counterproductive. And of course the budgets are stretched compared to the environmental action that is so desperately needed across England’s landscape.

    I couldn’t agree more, however, that increased capacity within NE for staff to work with landowners – and deliver more schemes – is essential. In the next couple of years, an awful lot of landowners will be coming out of HLS and unable to get into Higher Tier because of the time required by NE staff to process the paperwork…..

    • Steve Peel says:

      Thanks Lisa
      We all want simplicity, but we also want schemes which fit our circumstances. And as taxpayers we don’t want public money wasted. ELS had relatively little bureaucracy, huge uptake, but for biodiversity pretty limited outcomes. I wanted HLS prescriptions to fit a fag packet but this wouldn’t quite satisfy the Commission. And many advisers, with experience of the minority of farmers who had taken advantage of loosely defined agreements, actually wanted more prescriptions. Nevertheless HLS was not so complex that there were insufficient applicants.
      The new Countryside Stewardship is a different story, starting with the ill-advised aspiration from Defra, when we started design in about 2013, that they wanted zero disallowance. That was politically attractive but it gave NE accreditation colleagues and the RPA carte blanche to crank up ‘control and verification’ requirements to impractical levels, including a long list of photographic evidence. These eventually had to be scaled back somewhat but yes, very understandably, it put off a lot of applicants.
      Key to the balance to be struck in any future scheme is well-trained advisers/ facilitators empowered to negotiate within a flexible framework, with the time and back-up to revisit and agree changes if things are not working.

  8. sarahandstevep says:

    Echoes here in Exmoor . Need more bespoke schemes but that’s never
    been countenanced by MAFF, DEFRA. Too much about getting the numbers in = success…..

    http://socialsciences.exeter.ac.uk/media/universityofexeter/research/microsites/centreforruralpolicyresearch/pdfs/researchreports/Beyond_2020_short_report_Final.pdf

  9. stevecjjones says:

    If Countryside Stewardship, UK style, was rolled out across all EU member states, the EU would probably be bankrupted by the sheer cost of monitoring the damned scheme! And farmland wildlife probably still wouldn’t recover. That’s one problem with farmland wildlife recovery – with delivering wildlife-friendly farming – you do actually appear to need to be highly prescriptive and that can lead to v. high transaction costs. Is wildlife-friendly farming ultimately deliverable at the scale required to deliver recovery of farmland biodiversity if the whole thing costs so much and is so tightly prescriptive? Countryside Stewardship tends to be focused on managing and expanding ‘old farmland’ type habitats, which by their nature require tightly-prescribed management.

    I was struck by just how non-prescriptive Payments for Ecosystem Services (PES) schemes are in the Andes – they largely express targets in terms of hectares enrolled and aim to protect/recover whatever natural land cover does/would exist on that particular parcel. They’re not aiming to expand farmland habitats – they’re aimed at natural, non-intervention (forest or open) habitat. I think this is where ‘rewilding’ will out-perform traditional, prescription-based approaches in Europe. It’s not so prescriptive so the per-ha costs will be vastly lower.

    I do think we need both the highly-prescriptive ‘wildlife-friendly farming’ approach characterised by Countryside Stewardship but, recognising the sheer cost of such an approach, we need to compliment this with a light-touch, dare I call it ‘land sparing’ scheme, which supports withdrawal of farming from some areas, and recovery of ‘natural’ (or at least low intervention) habitats, where we may not be entirely sure of the likely outcome.

    • Steve Peel says:

      Thanks Steve

      Yes rewilding might well outperform agri-environment in terms of biodiversity and ecosystem services, except production of food? And there are species which have evolved within farming systems that might not do so well in a rewilded landscape. Then there is the cultural and social aspect of more extensive farming systems..

      I don’t think agri-environment has to be highly prescriptive. It needs a strong outcome focus, a substantial element of payment by results, and as I said to Lisa, well-trained advisers/ facilitators empowered to negotiate within a flexible framework, with the time and back-up to revisit and agree changes if things are not working.

      I do, though, agree that alongside that we need some substantial areas which are not farmed.

      • stevecjjones says:

        Thanks Steve. Rewilding areas won’t yield much in terms of food, but then large areas of marginal farmland in the UK don’t yield much food either – they ‘yield’ subsidies for the farmer. I’m surrounded by improved, but low-quality grasslands, that are only now ‘topped’ off to keep them open and looking like farmland and thus eligible for subsidy. And I live in intensively farmed southern England. Many of these areas were in ELS. Taking such areas out of ‘production’ would have zero impact on food production. We could always harvest wild meat from rewilded areas. Yields would be low of course.

        I don’t agree at all that there are species that have evolved within farmland and become dependent upon continuation of farming (I may have misinterpreted your point). There are communities of species that have assembled in response to historical low-input farming, but all those species found a niche prior to farming. They may be less abundant in natural habitats, and be found with different communities of species, but they would have been present. I’d also argue that the jury is still out regarding how closed v. open natural landscapes would have been pre-farming – maybe grazing lawns, on chalk, maintained by grazing successions involving bulk-feeding bovids and selective grazers / browsers would have been every bit as species-rich in plants, ants, Orthoptera etc as modern anthropogenic chalk grassland?

        My paragraph above isn’t to argue against wildlife-friendly farming: it can support unique assemblages of species in unique abundances. But it doesn’t support unique or dependent species.

        I thoroughly agree with point about the critical need for advisors if we’re to deliver successful, publicly-financed wildlife-friendly farming. I’ve worked on both the cirl bunting and stone curlew recovery projects and know the value of knowledgeable advice and follow-up visits. Of course delivering this, at scale (across the UK), in perpetuity (because farmers always need follow-up, knowledgeable, on-farm support) will cost a small fortune.

      • Steve Peel says:

        Steve I don’t know exactly where you are but taking most such grassland out of farming would certainly impact food production since most grassland in England is like that. What we could do, though, is greatly diversify it without reducing production. I’d be happy to send you a short paper I’ve done on that topic.

        I’ll leave others to comment on the impact of rewilding on species – I did say ‘might not do so well’, not ‘would go extinct’.

      • stevecjjones says:

        Steve (in reply to your comment below, which for some reason the system won’t let me comment on!)….. I’d definitely not advocate taking ‘most’ lowland improved grassland in the UK out of production, and I’m all in favour of making it as good for wildlife as possible. I’d like to see your paper on the subject – could you contact me via the ‘contact’ tab on my blog? ( https://naturalareasblog.wordpress.com/contact/ )

      • A lot of grassland is already out of production which is having a large impact upon biodiversity. Wildlife and species diversity would be better if managment of all grassland [and arable] was ‘wildlife friendly’ rather than a mixture of abandonment and more intensive management. Wildlife friendly involves creating a diversity in landscape features and vegative lengths that many species require to thrive but I don’t think abandonment of larger areas would be much, if any, better than other monocultures unless you could take out all of the infrastructure (roads, utilities, land drainage, etc) and reinstate appropriate levels of pre-farming species to allow the landscape to behave trully naturally. As many species are already extinct, this would be impossible, and our non-farming impacts would remain. The whole of modern human culture would need to change. The biggest impact of farming on any species is the effect we have had on ourselves.

      • stevecjjones says:

        Thanks for your comment Rosewood Farms. I agree that if sensitive agricultural management is withdrawn from species-rich agricultural grassland, and that this is happening a lot (in the Balkans, for example). Closer to home, a small patch of very nice chalk grassland SSSI near me has not been grazed for five years and it’s rapidly turning to (relatively species rich) chalk scrub. Natural England still class it as ‘unfavourable recovering’ which is nonsense but hey, Natural England isn’t what it once was. I’d agree that such small patches of ‘old farmland’ are best managed as part of the farming system within which they’re embedded, for now at least.

        I’m not sure there’s any need to increase the intensity of UK farmland even if some areas are withdrawn from agriculture – most of it is as intensive as one could feasibly get it, and, besides, we grow biofuel crops across large areas of decent farmland and waste a huge amount of locally-grown produce. So I think we could actually allow some areas to ‘rewild’, reduce the intensity of management of some farmland, and still produce just as much as we do now (and we’ll all be driving solar-powered electric cars within two decades so can stop growing so much biofuel, freeing up some land).

        I agree that if larger areas – i.e. the New Natural Areas I’ve proposed – were set aside for nature and people, we’d need to decommission some obsolete infrastructure (some little-used lanes could be converted to green lanes; some river flood defences could be abandoned; lots of fencing could be removed). That’s all fine by me.

        Your point about extinct species is critical. I’m personally open to the idea of trialling surrogates (such as Tauros in place of aurochs) in a few New Natural Areas, to see how biodiversity develops under their influence.

        I think it’s important to be open to various land uses, not just to demand that every square inch must be devoted to one use (e.g. to farming). Times change, new opportunities emerge. I think we have ample space for more wildlife-friendly farming and some larger areas not used for farming, but rich in wildlife and with greater accessibility to people.

      • My biggest issue with rewilding in the macro sense is the idea that this should happen only in the uplands or marginal land that is of little productive [financial] value to humans. To my mind there should be an even mix of geology & topography ‘rewilded’ to have the desired naturalised effect. This would take out a lot of our most productive farmland that has been cultivated only as a result of drainage and selective herbicides. A rewilded upland that runs into a modern, civilised lowland would be pointless IMO as it continues to assume that man’s needs come first and nature has to fit around them. The first step in rewilding, I believe, is in changing human consumption habits so that we consume what can be sustainably produced, not look for ways to produce sustainably what we wish to consume.

  10. davidwestfc says:

    Hi Miles, Steve and Lisa
    A radical alternative! – 20 yrs ago I was a FWAG adviser helping farmers with ambitious grassland restoration agri-environment applications. How many are still in place? I still believe in the’ voluntary principle’ however the gap between operating a viable farming business and managing for biodiversity (often low density stocking, traditional breeds and late cutting regimes) will be almost impossible to join up without the generous EU based payments. I now work on the Public Forest Estate and have seen the public response to a proposed selling off. While it goes against the political flow, would it not be more cost-effective in the medium term to purchase strategic connecting land and create an inter-connected ecological network soundly based on Lawton principles and place this in public ownership (in trust for the nation) with a management body engaged to develop specific regimes which place biodiversity and public enjoyment as the core goals rather than simply financial gain?
    Best
    David
    (note – personal – not an FC authorised comment!)

    • stevecjjones says:

      David – I’ll jump in to say I think you’re spot on. I’ve written about Land Trusts at my own blog here [you’ll need to scroll down a bit!]: https://naturalareasblog.wordpress.com/page/2/
      and also at a recent guest blog here:
      https://markavery.info/2017/08/23/32974/
      In short, I see great potential to develop a new ‘Natural Land Trust’ movement in the UK, one task of which would be to take on parts of the public estate that the State isn’t managing very well, and manage these for people and nature. The Land Trust could gradually take on land surrounding these areas.
      For example, I’d love for a Natural Land Trust to take on Thetford Forest, plus act as managing agent for the MoD bits at Stanta, and take some of the adjacent Crown Estate land, and maybe in time purchase some large estates……..

  11. Andy McNaught says:

    As an ex-NE employee and colleague of Steve’s I can relate very strongly to many of these comments. When I started working with AES in 1997 and visited a number of the old CSS agreements two things were obvious:- many of the sites had not been visited for some years (if at all) and many were not delivering the stated objectives.

    Fast forward to 2017! So I agree with many of the suggestions here:-

    It is too risky trying to create habitat through short term contracts with no guarantee at the end.

    We need to flip the coin – we’re trying to deliver biodiversity through farming as the primary function. Why not manage land primarily for biodiversity with any agricultural output as a secondary but not necessarily essential element. Not re-wilding just changing priorities.

    So AES in their current form would be scrapped.

    Any public funding for farming would be conditional on operating sustainable systems which include a genuinely high standard of environmental responsibility.

    More challenging biodiversity aims would be delivered through the Natural Land Trusts suggested and within the New Natural Areas.

    Much better value for the taxpayer, permanent and without the crippling bureaucracy.

    Happy to discuss.

    • “We need to flip the coin – we’re trying to deliver biodiversity through farming as the primary function. Why not manage land primarily for biodiversity with any agricultural output as a secondary but not necessarily essential element. Not re-wilding just changing priorities.”

      That is exactly what we have done and I believe that it could be rolled out further but at the moment I feel the money is being put in the wrong place. As a farmer funding is very hard to come by unless you already have lots of money to start with. I think that while CSS agreements have at least compensated farmers for going in the right direction, they have done nothing to change the culture of food and farming as a business, in both the public and the industries eyes.

      There is lots of funding available for non-profit & community groups to deliver public goods from which farmers are excluded because farms are businesses. Yet farmers, by necessity, have a long history of being resourceful and therefore efficient, and they could achieve the same objectives much more cheaply, if given the chance (and the money).

      I would like to the see the money used to support farmers instead diverted towards addressing the reasons why farming is not delivering the wildlife-goods – namely that the market isn’t set up to support us in doing so.

    • Steve Peel says:

      Andy

      Great to hear from you again – and a familiar ring to these issues. Other contributors are certainly keen to explore radical options requiring land purchase – I’m certainly happy to agree with that in principle but it sounds like a few decades work. Your own approach would require a considerable increase in regulation – I’d be happy with that too but I can’t see very much political appetite (maybe Mr Gove will surprise us but how long will he stay?).

      So I’m focusing on trying to get existing approaches to work – voluntary agreements certainly have risk but a bit more regulation combined with gradual culture change might reduce it to an acceptable level.

  12. davidwestfc says:

    Dear all
    Wisdom into action – there is a good deal of wisdom reflect in this blog and associated comments – is this getting to the right people? There must be colleagues in DEFRA who are head scratching at the moment in terms of UK agri-environment policy post Brexit – would there be value in a collective voice based on these posts. I would certainly like to see more open discussion on this critical agenda rather than what seems to be an ‘obsession’ with species re-introduction and re-wilding on our overcrowded nation!
    I now work in external funding at a national level. The suggested land trusts and strategic land acquisition based on Prof Lawton principles requires major capital investment if it is to be achieved at a landscape scale. For me the City provides a key to this. Yes the Lottery (HLF) could help but there must be ways to inspire successful business to invest in species conservation and land acquisition rather than £M’s going into football stadium and extortionate player purchase! As a sector we really have not developed the opportunities for commercial investment / philanthropy. Looking back at the Victorian era, success in business and family wealth was displayed through the creation of public parks and landscaped areas – why can we not ‘sell’ the case for reversing biodiversity decline with help from City success? If we were as successful as those securing investment in football or steam railways we could solve the biodiversity crisis – oh yes and plant more trees!
    Best
    David
    (Note – not formal FE response)

    • Miles King says:

      thanks David.

      I don’t know whether Defra officials read this blog – if they do, they haven’t told me. But I also know many people in Natural England read it.

      In my more hopeful moments I believe that the blog, alongside others with larger readerships, form part of the public debate around nature and its future in Britain. But that may be me being deluded.

      What is clear to me in the fog of Brexit, is that the first and most important step in the current process is to get a decent Agriculture Bill through Parliament, or amend a poor Agriculture Bill so it does what it needs to do. After that, there will be discussions on what a new Agri-Environment scheme looks like. The risk is that it will all be light touch (ELS-lite) with little or no advisor input. Whatever happens, the current stewardship scheme seems likely to be dropped at the earliest opportunity. We perhaps should all now start pushing for the Scheme to close to new applicants in 2019.

      • Steve Peel says:

        Miles

        I must thank you very much for hosting my piece – it has certainly prompted a lot of interesting comments.

        There seems to be agreement that if we’re going to have ae schemes akin to the ones we’ve had then advisers/ facilitators must have time and support for ongoing liaison with the land manager. And land managers need to be encouraged to work together (how long have we been saying that!). Much of the rest of the discussion has been on rewilding and alternative funding methods which is certainly an important debate though not one I was intending to stimulate.

        What has surprised and, I have to say, rather disappointed me is that nobody has commented on the woeful lack of success and poor value for public money of the option I quoted, the failure to follow through on agreed recommendations to improve quality of HLS, or the lack of open acknowledgement of these failings. When I quoted these findings at the last BES annual meeting there was a sense of shock and I was asked why we had continued to put money into these agreements when they were clearly not working well enough. Maybe your followers are hardened to government ways and expect nothing better.

        To me by far the biggest issue this raises is the standards of public life (see my reference list). Whatever policy we have, be it rewilding, payment-by-results or public ownership, we surely need our public servants to meet the 7 principles, and particularly:

        5. Openness
        Holders of public office should act and take decisions in an open and transparent manner. Information should not be withheld from the public unless there are clear and lawful reasons for so doing.
        6. Honesty
        Holders of public office should be truthful.

      • Miles King says:

        Thanks Steve. Yes I suspect you’re probably right, readers of this blog have become used to these stories.

      • Nimby says:

        Some have asked the basic question is Defra fit for purpose? My interpretation of that was the senior policy makers and the way they seemed to react to questioning as well as advocacy from landowning interests particularly. The grassroots staff will doubtless struggle monitoring so there is breach of compliance (certainly in my experience and local area and interested observers are not thanked for alerting Defra agencies of this).

        Some interesting feedback from the blog post and that can only be good, what Defra need to do now is ensure all stakeholders are involved in order to achieve public benefit in terms of high value nature ‘farming’ for public support through funding.

    • Paul Beevers says:

      My background is conservation volunteer in a local authority urban green space context for about 12 years and spent a lot of time trying to achieve policy and practical changes in land management. My knowledge is different and less expert than many of you but nevertheless I have achieved and learned much and I would agree wholeheartedly that we need a new National Trust that will focus on acquiring land strategically to be managed in the way many of us believe it should be. We bang our heads continually to get small changes with consistently poor outcomes and that is what we face getting again. We need to get greater control of land and manage it intelligently. That means we need money to do it. A National Trust could do more than individual wildlife trusts and should aim to focus on getting large sums of money for the purpose of acquiring land. I think a simple message like that could sell to individuals and possibly people with far more money than me. The time I am sure is right.

      • I partially agree Paul, but with the caveat that we should concentrate first upon improving the management of existing land in public ownership and ensure that this is delivering, alongside strategic acquisition of unprotected sites. I would rather see the money used to influence consumer behaviour towards supporting high nature value in their every day spending habits so that we didn’t need to publically subsidise it.

  13. davidwestfc says:

    Some further practical background – One of the frustrations of being a FWAG adviser or a CSS adviser was the limited amount of time available to do the essential follow up work even with 10 yr duration AES programmes. I worked in North and West Oxfordshire and my ‘target’ was 100 farm visits per year. In reality this was too many if you wanted to provide quality advisory reports, signpost famers to specialist advisers (Plantlife, RSPB etc) or local volunteers etc. Working on a voluntary basis we inevitably had a degree of self-selection and in a many cases we were working with those who had always maintained a commitment to environmental practice and sound custodianship rather than some of the growing agri-business contractors managing 1000’s of ha’s of land. The more interesting sites might take 3 or 4 days / year and, when realistic charging was introduced to this advice it often became a very difficult ‘sell’. We were pursuing catchment and group farm initiatives 25 years ago but there were always key sties that refused to participate breaking the chain. While it was a long time ago for me I can only sympathise with those at the front line who are still formally engaged in providing advice and support – it is very easy to just go very ‘broad and shallow’ in your approach in order to get the job done and targets reached. While I fully support the call for greater support and advice to AES agreement holders, I know from first hand experience just how many practical advisers would be needed across the country to meet demand and land managers do not want 10 different organisations visiting with differing advice and priorities. In recent year I have seen first hand the impact of generic management prescriptions by computer which has plagued recent and hugely complex bureaucratic AES programmes. Looking out of the window at Dartmoor NP, in 10 years I have seen large areas become dominated by low growing unpalatable scrub, gorse and bracken resulting from computer driven ‘grazing’ prescriptions with little local tailoring – areas which cannot now be grazed by livestock and would cost a fortune to mechanically manage. Re-wilding? I don’t think so.
    I do think we need a radical new vision for managing our most important ecological networks and placing less emphasis on the agri-environment approach . We have tried the model with mega EU funding for over 20 years – yes we could tweak and improve it but are we not flogging a dead horse? Probably the wrong expression for Dartmoor!! DW

    • Steve Peel says:

      Thanks David

      I empathise with your experience. But farmer reluctance to pay for FWAG-type advice could surely have been mitigated if government policy had encouraged, incentivised or even actually required more environmentally positive management and actions? And agri-environment would surely work a lot better if farmers had a bigger stake in improving biodiversity, were more actively involved in agreements, talking and learning from each other, informed and facilitated by advisers who had time to do so?

      I don’t want this to be a country in which all the wildlife is in ‘natural areas’ and those managing farmland have no incentive to protect and enhance biodiversity.

      I don’t see this as a binary choice – EITHER evolve a better agri-environment approach OR embark on (more radical) land purchase by public bodies/ trusts etc. Why not both?

      • davidwestfc says:

        Hi Steve
        On reflection you are of course right and my reply was rather rambling! – it should NOTt be a binary choice and I do not want to see a countryside where wildlife only occurs in designated publicly owned areas. My background is farming and I have a smallholding on Dartmoor – so I am completely behind any initiative that promotes a more biodiversity rich farming system and a whole farm + group farm approach. The central point I was trying to make on advisers is that we need a lot more of them than is often suggested and it is hard to see how they will be funded – there are a lot of ‘facilitators’ out there but only limited generalists with hard core practical experience of both farming and ecology working / delivering on the front line. In many areas the fragile framework of smaller enclosed family farms is absolutely critical to a rich and managed countryside – the CAP and successive AES programmes have failed to protect this and I really fear the complete demise of smaller farms post BREXIT. Smaller livestock farms with a history of extensive grazing regimes are perhaps more under threat than ever and the farmers themselves could become Red Data Book species themselves!
        David

  14. Kitty Hamilton says:

    For me as a ELS/HLS agreement holder with a msc in biological recording the frustration is with how the schemes are enforced. Inspections are all about heights, widths and other easily measured criteria that can be quickly assessed by inspectors who have limited biodiversity knowledge. Absolutely right about advisors – not enough contact to form good relationships and some of them lack adequate ecological knowledge and are constrained by the scheme rules to focus on processes rather than outcomes.

    • Steve Peel says:

      Thanks Kitty

      I certainly sympathise with agreement-holders who are penalised for transgressions such as margins which may in some places be less than the required width even though in most places they exceed it. Any public funding has to be subject to verification checking but it should be exercised with knowledge of the significance to outcomes and with the discretion to balance under and over-compliance.

      Sounds like you would be well-placed in a scheme in which self-monitoring was an option. How about facilitating a farmer group?

  15. Nimby says:

    Self monitoring is unlikely to work in Humberhead Levels, it would not receive support from local NGO observers. Deliberate damage to a Humberhead Levels SSSI was reported to both RPA & NE. The neighbouring landowner who did this and was in breach of compliance had no sanction imposed. Where’s the consistency, let alone ‘justice’ in that? Is this another example of Defra agencies being [un]fit for purpose?

    • Steve Peel says:

      Self-monitoring would have to be subject to spot checks, probably risk-based. And yes there have to be penalties.
      In 2003 I took Defra officials to see a very impressive scheme in action in the Netherlands. The agreement was with a ‘farmer co-operative’ but that included many local citizens, some of whom were keen birdwatchers and some had other skills. They were able to help with monitoring and check claims before submission. Harder to get that to work here but wouldn’t it be great?

    • Steve Peel says:

      Thanks Mark

      Yes I referred to the RBAPS pilot in my reply to Rosewood Farm on 4 Sept. Ministers seem to be keen but I suspect this is partly because they think it will be cheaper to run than the conventional approach. Conversations with those running the pilot confirms this is not likely to be the case.

      Watching Michael Gove today in front of the EFRA committee (available on Parliament TV) he mentioned the pilot. He also suggested that future policy could have a social support function perhaps where that helped conserve ‘iconic landscapes’. And he claimed that the 25 yr plans were still in hand, with some additions being finalised. But I agree – we might be holding our breaths for some time.

  16. ernestpaulb says:

    This post continues to generate thoughtful comments, but also some fears. One fear is tat hopes that future environmental policy will incorporate good advice and monitoring are misplaced. My experience of present policies locally and observations about national policy as well lead me to conclude that Government will not spend money in that way. Furthermore I question whether monitoring will guarantee good results where applicants do it mainly for the money. They will continue to deliver poor outcomes. The NIA model or a variant is likely to be preferred but from what little I have seen it still has to prove itself given the inclusion of intensive farmers whose contribution to my mind is more about greenwash. I respect enormously farmers or farm groups who manage their land to a high standard but those farms may probably require little monitoring if they win by competitive tendering. I would suggest they are more likely to be smaller farms rather than large agribusinesses but small farms are already in serious decline. Corporate buyers of land for investment return alone seem to be increasingly in the market. We are seeing American investors (asset strippers?) buying up uplands for tree planting and goodness knows how those will turn out. This is globalisation writ large and probably a foretaste of even more of this type of asset stripping investment yet to come from India, China and more who care not a jot for whether our countryside is further degraded, only in the profit it turns. Why should taxpayers subsidise those businesses for minimal environmental returns and probably even more damage?
    I would suggest that to argue for more monitoring overall will reinforce the views of those like Owen Patterson who believe that agribusinesses should be allowed to farm as intensively as they wish without subsidies whilst others more in tune with a passion to manage the land sustainably receive subsidies for public benefits by bidding competitively with promises of results. The constraint will be limited money no matter which party in power. The NIA’s are probably a model for more of this. The latter at least suggests that while less money is spent there is a better focus and the potential to produce good outcomes from working with people who care. The problem may be the extent and connectivity of such an approach and the competition for land purchases. By comparison with the New Zealand model, the OPAT approach of paying for public benefits may at least reduce the number of farmers going out of business.
    In respect of the uplands, what certainty is there that any policies by future governments will lead to significantly better conservation practices even if there are subsidies for so called conservation purposes given the opposition that will come from traditional farmers and large landowners (and even the National Parks) who have a different agenda and sadly the power to hold back change?
    So far then it seems to me there are only 2 scenarios. 1. A subsidy and monitoring regime that everyone it seems largely agrees has not worked and in my view will not work. 2. An OPAT solution that focusses subsidies using limited money to those most willing to farm sustainably and requiring less monitoring because they have to promise results. Perhaps the best hope for intensive farming will be that the model will eventually be seen to have failed even by intensive farmers but how long will that take and what will they do afterwards?
    Is there an Option 3?
    I agree that we need a mixed model of ownership but I feel too that we should be expanding community ownership of land outside of government, thereby establishing better influence and control because otherwise we are abdicating responsibility for doing the things we say should happen. A suggestion has been made recently that the National Trust should be split with land use and management as a separate Trust. That might potentially be a quick way of getting up and running with a recognisable name and infrastructure, achieving focus and appealing to a new more nature and sustainable farming oriented population. I cannot tell how realistic that might be though. Perhaps the Wildlife Trusts or the WCL at a national level could help launch such a Trust and use their name, connections and resources to do so. One side benefit of community owned land ownership could be an expansion of smaller tenanted farms managed according to the kinds of principles we aspire to.
    I fear that unless the conservation movement takes the initiative, and promptly, we will continue to be bystanders, merely commenting and complaining while those with other ideas for land use simply seize the initiative, buy land and place it under even less sympathetic ownership than we have now.
    National land acquisition would undoubtedly have to be in parallel with some of Option 2 because government will make Option 2 type decisions. The idea that we can significantly influence the way government thinks or how large scale intensive farming works at this time does not seem to me to be realistic even though I am sure some of the national bodies have expanded their influence. Even if the intensive farming model changes the aim will be to be to produce profits intensively one way or another! To my mind more community based land ownership for sustainable farming and nature should be an objective whatever policies government comes up with and who better to pursue that vision? I rather think there is too much time spent railing at Government and we need more focus on getting more of the job done ourselves.

    • davidwestfc says:

      Paul
      Many a wise word in here. I think we do need a collective voice for Option 3. I fully agree regarding community involvement. It does need some careful thinking about as sometimes the community ownership model is so dependent on one or two really passionate and active members – when they go what security is there for the land. Public ownership via a trust in perpetuity for key priority corridors would get my vote.
      David

      Personal comment – Not FC/FEE

    • Lisa Schneidau says:

      Thanks for this, useful ideas. Speaking from experience: the NIA approach only works if there is sufficient regulation, sufficient funding for habitat creation as well as restoration, and enough dedicated and knowledgeable advisory resource to work with a large number of farmers over a sustained period. i.e. carrot, stick, and support / knowledge are all required.
      Option 3 and community involvement – I wholeheartedly agree with this. we need to be working towards a more radical shift in culture where community has a real say in the way their landscape and place is managed: a localised approach which is more than lip-service; and a return to high quality, high nature farming and farmers being valued by their local community. At present, speaking generally, community has no sense of influence, and the farming sector as a whole has a huge sense of entitlement. Somewhere in the middle, there are some good people doing some good work; but it does often seem to be little more than holding back the march of intensification, no matter where in the country you are. That is not a sustainable land use policy in the long term.

      • davidwestfc says:

        HI Lisa – as always, I find myself agreeing with you here. I fear that NIAs will be yesterdays news in 10 years? Where are LEAPs today? As a sector – policy makers always seem to want a new demonstration. The 25 yr Environment Plan Pioneers being a classic case in point? Best David

  17. Mark Fisher says:

    EC has a Pilot on-farm project to test results-based remuneration schemes for the enhancement of biodiversity, and which is especially directed towards grassland, as existing agri-environmental measures supported by the CAP in the EU tended to reward farmers for meeting certain activity-based standards that were expected to deliver additional environmental benefits, but the achievement of those benefits was not always “optimally monitored”
    http://ec.europa.eu/environment/funding/pdf/rbaps2015/EP%20Pilot%20grant%20RBAPS%20call%20final.pdf

    Natural England and the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority got a 3 year grant out of this in 2016 to jointly run a pilot study, known as the Results-Based Agri-environment Payment Scheme (RBAPS). The two pilot study areas test grassland (Wensleydale) and arable management options (Norfolk and Suffolk). Agreement holders for options under Environmental Stewardship or Countryside Stewardship get paid by results, not by following set methods.
    https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/results-based-agri-environment-payment-scheme-rbaps-pilot-study-in-england

    It was presumed that these pilots would “shape land management scheme design in England and the EU for the future” Since the future of agri-environmental payments is unclear now, it remains to be seen how far results-based payment will be adopted, if at all. In my response to the EAC, I noted that the opportunity now is to consider whether farm support should continue, and if it is to be an instrument of addressing market failure, implementing a rural social policy, or in securing the elements of the natural environment within a predominantly farmed landscape. It can be argued that the non-market public goods of securing the elements of the natural environment will bring a better overall focus to any program of farm support, delivering as well on a rural social policy, as it may also incorporate a way of addressing market failures. However, to achieve this, the implementation of just one funding stream must be markedly improved from the current piecemeal approach for agri-environment funding, and which overcomes the constraints of property boundaries and voluntary take up. SSSI should be seen as part of the wider landscape, rather than be treated as islands that have favoured funding, so that they are integrated into the improved wildlife connectivity that will be afforded by whole landscape management. I noted that delivering the approach would necessitate a major upskilling of the statutory agencies, and should be nested within a long-term national view on farming. The 25 year farming plan would have been appropriate for that, but don’t hold your breath for any kind of farming plan until after March 2019, and not even then if trade deals are unfinished.

  18. Pingback: LEGOs, Landscapes and Catchments – guest blog by @UKSustain farm campaigner Vicki Hird | a new nature blog

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