There is much speculation regarding how the forthcoming Environmental Land Management Schemes (ELMS) will benefit farmers as EU basic farm payments are withdrawn. Many farmers see ELMS as being a simple extension of the existing Countryside Stewardship Scheme (CS) but politicians are asking why should the Government give £3 billion each year to Agriculture in the first place? Surely farmers need to justify and prove this level of benefit to society.
To ensure value for the taxpayer ELMS will be competitive and almost certainly will be paid on demonstrable results. In order to bid for public subsidy farmers will need to know what assets they have already got as a baseline. Natural Capital Accounting is the system best suited to achieve this and allows landowners to then identify the most appropriate improvements and enhancements that they can make. Often in conjunction with other farmers, there will be a competitive process and schemes will need to be independently accredited and monitored in order to demonstrate environmental improvements. Soil carbon would be valued along with measures to improve air quality, health, recreation and flood defences as well as biodiversity gains.
For many farmers this looks like a whole lot of trouble that they don’t need. It will be different for larger estates and farms which have diversified who will be able to see significant value added in these sorts of measures. While this may not appear to be much of a carrot, there will also be a significant stick applied to agriculture as the principle of ‘polluter pays’ is further extended across the farming industry. It is perfectly possible that fertiliser and pesticides will be taxed in order to reduce usage and run off, and that all aspects of water pollution be charged for.
Over time it is also possible that payments for carbon sequestration will exceed subsidies from ELMS or at least be more accessible for many farmers. The Woodland Carbon Code is one sector where this is already in action and providing payments to landowners planting new woodland.
The biggest issue is that changes in agricultural export tariffs are likely to hit farmers far harder and more rapidly than any of these other measures and continue to cast a dark shadow of uncertainty over the future of farming. The outlook for our traditional landscapes and wildlife in the countryside remains equally insecure.
Following extensive consultation, Defra produced an Environmental Land Management discussion document in February, which is the first detailed publication as to how ELMS might look. Firstly, it clarifies the ‘public goods’ which ELMS will pay for:
- clean and plentiful water
- clean air
- protection from and mitigation of environmental hazards
- mitigation of and adaptation to climate change
- thriving plants and wildlife
- beauty, heritage and engagement
Reassuringly it looks at length at the shortcomings of the current Countryside Stewardship Scheme which has been seen as being over prescriptive and has had only a limited uptake in many parts of the country. It is felt that applicants need to have confidence in the delivery mechanism, and that ELMS should concentrate on positive outcomes from land management rather than penalising farmers for non-achievement. Existing good practice should be rewarded as well as adopting new measures. Compliance and enforcement need to be proportionate. Many landowners have considered CS to be far more trouble than it was worth. They suggest that ELMS should have an element of local prioritisation and much better technical support for applicants.
ELMS will retain the idea of different ‘Tiers’ from CS which allows farms to engage according to the type of land and location.
- Tier 1 will cover a range of incentives to encourage environmentally sustainable farming and forestry, focussing on those practices which are most effective when delivered at scale.
- In Tier 2, land managers will be supported to deliver locally targeted outcomes, which are likely to rely on collaboration between multiple farms.
- Tier 3 will go a stage further to focus on projects which will change land use on a landscape scale. This will support ambitious schemes such as net zero carbon, new forests or wetland complexes and peatland restoration projects.
It is clear from the wording of the document that forestry support will be integral with ELMS and will be the primary mechanism for new afforestation and carbon capture planting schemes.
The delivery mechanism is now at the pilot stage with the idea that ELMS applications can commence in 2024. One of the most interesting pilots is looking at payment by results. This will require more effective monitoring than with CS but the new ecological and environmental metrics make this much easier to demonstrate than in the past.
As I write I am hearing that lamb prices have just crashed 35% due to Corona virus restrictions on movement and the collapse of the restaurant trade. We have a very long and uncertain road to follow before we will be able to realise these long-anticipated improvements to our countryside.