Green scheme to shift subsidy from production to protection

Farmers are being given the chance to live up to their self-proclaimed title of 'guardians of the countryside', with the launch of the Environmental Stewardship Scheme.

The new scheme will allow payments to be made to farmers for undertaking environmental protection and enhancement work on their land which, together with the new single payment and cross-compliance rules under the reform of the CAP, will mark the biggest shift in agricultural funding for a generation.

Farmers could add significantly to their income through such measures as looking after hedgerows to provide habitats for wildlife, creating wildflower plots for bees and other beneficial insects, and protecting ponds from pesticides and fertilisers to encourage wildlife such as frogs and newts.

It includes a number of soil and water production measures in high risk catchments such as reduced fertiliser and pesticide options and reversion to grassland to limit erosion. It also encourages improved water management through restoration of wetlands and creation of inter-tidal and saline habitats to act as sustainable sea defences.

In the past farmers subsidy was linked to how much they produced – regardless of whether this produce was actually needed or not. This often led to enormous destruction of the environment as farmers ripped out hedgerows and trees to make maximum use of space, while soaking the ground in chemicals which then ended up polluting local water courses as there was little left to prevent run-off.

However, the CAP reforms of 2003 broke the link between production and subsidy so that farmers receive one single payment based on the area they farm rather than the amount they produce. This means that production needs don’t overrule other concerns such as environmental care.

The Environmental Stewardship payments will compliment these measures. It has been developed in conjunction with environmental and farming organisations and is a key component of the government’s Sustainable Strategy for Farming and Food, announced two years ago by Sir Don Curry. It consolidates the numerous individual environmental incentive schemes currently available to farmers.

Speaking at the launch of the scheme, Environment Secretary Margaret Beckett said: “This is a real red letter day for English farming. Every farmer can now be rewarded for protecting and enhancing the environment. With the wider CAP reforms, we are making good progress towards ensuring farming is truly sustainable. The more farmers become involved, the greater the benefit to the environment. Reversing the long term decline in farmland birds, for example, requires action to improve habitats over wide areas.”

The scheme operates on a number of levels:

  • Entry level stewardship is a ‘whole farm’ scheme open to all farmers and land managers.
  • Organic entry level stewardship is also a ‘whole farm’ scheme open to all organic land managers; and
  • Higher level stewardship which will be combined with the first two options and aims to deliver significant environmental benefits in high priority areas.

    The organic level payments are higher to reflect the greater environmental benefits that this approach offers.

    It has been welcomed by conservation groups and farming groups alike. NFU deputy President Peter Kendall called on all farmers to sign up, saying that the different levels “offer the opportunity to improve environmental protection on farms without the need to sacrifice income.”

    The Environment Agency welcomed the scheme as a great incentive to protect soils and water. Barbara Young, Environment Agency Chief Executive said: “Environmental Stewardship offers farmers an excellent incentive to protect water from the potentially damaging effects of sedimentation, nutrients and pesticides. Healthy soils and water are the building blocks for bio-diversity so it is crucial that measures to protect these resources are in every farmer’s environmental plan.”

    The scheme itself will be delivered by the Rural Development Service working with Defra’s partner organisations and farmers can either apply in writing or online through the Defra website. Full details can be seen through the link on the right hand side of this story.

    By David Hopkins

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