Country Matters

During the debate about environmental policy after we leave the European Union, the terms natural capital, ecosystem services, and public goods are bandied about with abandon. Many of the people using them barely understand what they mean, even fewer of those are listening.

Perhaps the simple way to find a way through the jargon is to consider all the things that farmers provide other than the food we eat, the fibre we wear or renewable energy.  Above all, they are stewards of the landscape beloved by us and the millions of visitors from around the world.  That landscape includes the hedgerows and copses, arable fields and pastures, public rights of way, streams and rivers that make up our beautiful patchwork quilt of countryside. It is entirely reasonable that farmers should be paid for looking after these features for all to enjoy.

Cross-compliance conditions will be abolished as direct payments are phased out but there is a Code of Good Agricultural Practice that covers them, particularly the care of soil, water and air. This could be developed alongside assurance schemes, animal welfare, traceability and the like to create an exemplary standard.  Farmers would be encouraged to sign up this standard and should receive a small payment for meeting the conditions in their stewardship of the land.

There should be three levels of payment to reflect the importance of the landscape. Those in less favoured areas where profits from farming are hard to come by but stewardship is critical to the countryside should receive an enhanced payment, perhaps based on the proportion of permanent pasture. Those in the uplands should receive a higher payment still, again to reflect the poor returns from farming but the importance of care of the landscape. Whether this is called payment for ecosystem services, for retaining natural capital, even a licence or contract to farm, the principle is simple.

Others can be involved in these schemes but not to the extent of imposing prescriptions on farmers. There is a tendency to assume that farmers are only interested in profit and need to be told how to conserve nature. This is entirely mistaken as farmers know their land and how best to care for it. This is particularly the case in terms of water where there should be land management plans on a river catchment scale, based on the current Catchment Sensitive Farming Initiative, with the active participation of the water companies under the auspices of the Environment Agency. There are a number of schemes already in existence where water companies provide funds for grants helping farmers to minimise pollution and enhance water quality. This benefits everyone as the water companies have lees need of water purification measures.

There is a general acceptance that the Countryside Stewardship Scheme launched in 2014 has been an unmitigated disaster.  Partly due to a lack of funding and partly due to fear of infraction by European Union auditors, the scheme is bureaucratic and restrictive. This is unfortunate because its predecessor, the Environmental Stewardship Scheme with its Entry and Higher Levels had been very successful with excellent participation by farmers.  Indeed, over 70% of farmland in England was in the Entry Level. Higher Level contracts were for ten years so a number are still running, but take up of the new scheme has been low and Entry Level has been abolished or replaced by the greening measures of the current CAP regime.

One of the advantages of leaving the European Union is that we have the opportunity to start again with a new agri-environment scheme. There should be more money available as direct payments are phased out and there will no longer be any fear of fines from Brussels for poor administration. The new scheme should be simple and open to all farmers. There should be no tiers or separate levels, simply grants for whatever options the farmer chooses to take up, both capital and annual. 

There should be incentives for farmers to work together to determine their own priorities and how to achieve their objectives. Some excellent pilot schemes have shown how this might work, such as the Nature Improvement Areas, of which the Marlborough Downs was a shining example. The Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust has been promoting cluster farms where a group of farmers work together for nature conservation on a landscape scale.

Natural England has a pilot running in the Yorkshire Dales where the priorities are species-rich pasture and good habitat for waders such as lapwing, snipe, curlew and redshank. Farmers are aware of the desired outcomes but are free to decide how best they can be achieved. There is no prescription, no bureaucracy, simply a payment for success. Another pilot is running on arable land on the Norfolk/Suffolk border, giving examples of how a new scheme might work. Collaboration amongst farmers should be encouraged by a grant to pay for an ecologist co-ordinator retained by the farmers themselves.

The conservation lobby is demanding that all available money should go on measures to promote wildlife, especially farmland birds, whilst farmers point out that many will struggle to survive without direct payments, especially in marginal areas. Brexit gives us the opportunity to devise schemes that suit the UK and achieve the conflicting objectives, perhaps along the lines outlined above.

The writer Andrew Davis is Wessex area chairman for CRAG. The views represented in this article are not necessarily those of the Conservative Party as a whole.