Defra touts quicker rollout of nature-friendly farmer payments covering fertilisers, insecticides and more

The UK Government has provided more information on its post-Brexit payment schemes for farmers, intended to support practices that conserve and restore nature while maintaining food security. But some NGOs claim farmers still do not have enough clarity and confidence to take part, and that the schemes themselves aren’t matching the scale of the nature crisis.

Defra touts quicker rollout of nature-friendly farmer payments covering fertilisers, insecticides and more

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The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has today (26 January) announced that it is “speeding up” the rollout of its Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) programme, providing farmers with payments for six additional actions to improve ecosystems this year when these payments were initially due to be phased in over a longer time period.

The SFI was created in a bid to ensure farmers are paid for preserving ‘common goods’ relating to nature, as well as for the foods and ingredients they produce. The first payments, awarded last year, were made to farmers for improving soil health and moorlands. Around 1,900 farmers received these payments.

Now, farmers will be able to claim payments for improving hedgerow management; ending insecticide use and implementing more natural pest management interventions; optimising the use of fertilisers to limit nutrient runoff; planting flower-rich margins and incorporating “companion crops”. Companion cropping involves planting at least one additional kind of crop in a field aside from its main crop, with the aim of improving soil health. Legumes are commonly used for this.

Payments will also be available for grassland management, both ‘improved’ and ‘low-input’. Farmers are being incentivised to take ‘improved’ grassland out of management, or at least to maintain this grassland as buffer strips at the edges of their fields. The grassland and hedgerow payments were initially set to launch in 2024.

“Today’s announcement provides clarity and certainty to farmers, allowing them to make business decisions and cover costs as direct payments are phased out whilst getting involved in Environmental Land Management schemes,” Defra said in a statement.

Farmers and environmental groups alike expressed concerns over the financial wellbeing of British farmers late last year amid delays to reviews of these subsidy schemes amid two consecutive changes in Prime Minister.

Farming Minister Mark Spencer confirmed the conclusion of the review in early January at the Oxford Farming Conference, in a pre-cursor to today’s announcement.

Defra has emphasised that the Countryside Stewardship scheme will continue and that an extended scheme will be made available by the end of 2024, under which, farmers will be paid for taking 30 additional actions.

Landscape recovery scheme

Also today, Defra confirmed that it will open applications for the second round of the Landscape Recovery Scheme this spring. It additionally confirmed a third round for spring 2024.

First announced in 2021, the Scheme will support landowners and land managers to deliver “more radical changes to land-use and habitat restoration”, financing large-scale products such as floodplain and wetland restoration and woodland creation.

Under the first round, Defra initially intended to support up to 15 projects, but increased its support to 22. It claims that these projects collectively covered 263 plant and animal species.

Defra has stated that, this time around, it will take on up to 25 projects. It has stated that it wishes to focus on restoring degraded protected sites and creating new habitats.

Green economy reaction

Earlier this month, the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) confirmed that the UK is off track to meet all of its key nature targets and, therefore, its overarching mission to leave nature in a better state for the next generation.

It is perhaps unsurprising, therefore, that some environmental groups are questioning whether Defra’s accelerated plans go far enough, in terms of both speed and breadth.

Think-tank Green Alliance has previously concluded that a rapid expansion of Defra’s schemes could increase farm incomes by a fifth on the least productive land while also doubling wildlife numbers in the local areas.

There are also concerns about Defra taking a piecemeal approach, as Nature Friendly Farming Network Chair Martin Lines explained. He said: “This is a positive development in what’s been a long road to getting clarity on the future of farm payments for managing hedgerows, wildflower meadows and other essential ecosystems.

“However, individual actions on their own won’t achieve our climate and nature targets. There remains the need for a join-up between actions to avoid a piecemeal approach. Whilst it’s not perfect, it’s a start.”

“For many farmers, this will be the beginning of a journey to nature-friendly farming and Defra must pull out all the stops in giving farmers consistent support and a clear roadmap towards a truly holistic and sustainable farming industry.”

The Soil Association’s head of farming policy Gareth Morgan, likewise, called for “a long-term vision to help farmers do more than make small changes”.

Morgan said: “The Government is failing to make clear how they will give farmers confidence to invest in the radical changes needed for a resilient and sustainable, agroecological farming sector. We are facing a climate emergency and ecological collapse – there are welcome elements in today’s announcement but we must stop tinkering around the edges.

“Much that is set to be rewarded in this new policy was already part of existing Countryside Stewardship policies, and it remains unclear as to which scheme farmers should choose or how the policies will work together. The new incentives for agroecological and organic farming practices  – like avoiding insecticides and using legumes for soil fertility instead of chemicals – are welcome. But information on the promised organic standard or any clarity for our sustainable farming pioneers is still missing. Support for game-changing action like planting more trees on farms is also desperately needed.”

The UK Government is due to produce a land use strategy this quarter.

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