Farmers in England will be able to get government funding for 280 different actions to protect the environment, from protecting hedgerows to maintaining peatlands, under a major overhaul of farm subsidies.
Thursday’s long-awaited announcement shows farmers what to expect if they apply for government incentives called Environmental Land Management Schemes (ELMs), worth £2.4 billion a year this Parliament.
Farmers welcomed the announcement as providing clarity on the new payment schemes, which took five years to create and are the post-Brexit replacement for the EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).
Unlike the cap, which provides incentives to farmers based primarily on the land they farm, the overhaul will reward farmers for protecting nature and improving the environment. But critics warned that large arable farmers are still likely to reap the biggest rewards under the new schemes, with fewer options for smaller farmers and those in tougher environments such as upland and moorland regions.
Most were payment rates for 280 measures Set in a 101-page document. The payments cover almost all aspects of farming and aim to help farmers become more environmentally sustainable, use less pesticides and reduce pollution and other impacts on the natural world while producing more food.
Payments vary widely depending on the tasks performed by farmers. For example, farmers will be paid up to £537 per hectare to create fenland from low-lying peat and £1,920 per hectare to maintain land for organic fruit production, £22 per hectare to assess soil and £10.38 for establishment. A skylark plot.
Some are broad – £22 per hectare for adding organic matter to the soil, or at least 70% green cover in winter – and some detailed, such as £120 to £150 for maintaining sphagnum moss to capture and store carbon.
The prospectus will be snapped up by farmers, who will be able to “stack” different payments and incentives, attracting as many as possible to apply to their farms. The payments are meant to provide “public money for public goods”, replace subsidies from the EU Common Agricultural Policy, and took almost five years to attract after interim measures met with mixed success.
Therese Coffey, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, said: “Farmers are at the heart of our economy – producing food for our tables and custodians of the land it comes from. These two roles go hand-in-hand and we are accelerating the rollout of our farming schemes so that Everyone can be supported financially as they protect the planet and grow food.
Applications for some payments will open in February, others to follow in March, and some will roll out later in the year and the year after.
Officials said that the application and payment system has been streamlined, so that it is easy for farmers to apply, taking no more than 45 minutes to fill the forms, without professional help.
Mark Tufnell, chairman of the Country Land and Business Association, which represents around 28,000 farmers, landowners and rural business owners, said: “These are critical times for the region which has endured years of turmoil and uncertainty. These standards and payment rates are broadly in line with expectations, and will encourage many arable farmers to take the leap into new farming schemes. But for moorland dwellers or hill farmers struggling to make ends meet, this is nothing new.”
He added: “The move towards paying for environmental delivery is welcome – it benefits the planet, people and, in time, farmers. It keeps England a world leader in green farming. But this major shift in agricultural policy comes at a time of high inflation, poor labor supply and persistent extreme weather events. The stakes for farmers could not be higher, and it is the UK Government’s responsibility to make these schemes accessible to all types of farms, thus giving the industry the confidence we need to make these schemes work.”
Previous reforms to the payment system announced earlier this month were widely criticized as too few, and farmers have been slow to take up the measures. The Guardian revealed that only 224 farmers received payment last year.
Decades of intensive farming and a lack of attention to nature conservation have left the UK’s natural environment without enough plans to bring about the changes needed, sustainable farming experts say.
Last week, the regulatory watchdog, the Environmental Protection Agency, criticized the government for being lax on nearly every environmental measure. Martin Lines, president of the Nature Friendly Farming Network, said while Thursday’s announcement was positive, it did not go far enough. “Individual actions will not achieve our climate and nature goals,” he said. “To avoid a piecemeal approach, there is a need to join actions.”
Gareth Morgan, head of agricultural policy at the Soul Association, added: “The Government has failed to explain how to give farmers the confidence to invest in the radical changes needed for a resilient and sustainable, agri-environment farming sector. We are facing a climate emergency and ecological collapse – today’s announcement has welcome elements but we must stop tinkering around the edges.”