Farmers in England have waited six years to find out what they will be paid by the government to do after Brexit, and now they have been given something resembling an answer.
When the UK left the EU, one of the few almost universally agreed benefits was that the farming system could be reformed, leaving behind the hated common agricultural policy that paid farmers for the amount of land they managed.
Instead, Michael Gove, then the environment secretary, proposed that farmers would be given funds by taxpayers for enhancing nature – an idea agreed with by almost everyone and a new world-leading blueprint for funding public goods.
Gove imagined it would be an easy way to transform the countryside, bringing back nature with farmers paid for simple principles such as laying more hedges, using less pesticides and building new habitat for rare creatures.
But instead the policy has been mired in dither and delay, full of confusing acronyms, opaque pilot schemes and changes in direction. A succession of new environment secretaries – and some fierce lobbying from the farming unions – has caused the schemes to take many years to roll out.
Now, at long last, the government is announcing the direction of the new farming policy and what farmers will be paid for.
Many nature organizations were nervous after a review of the schemes was announced back in September by the short-lived Liz Truss government, which was at best apathetic towards nature. Ranil Jayawardena, the equally short-lived environment secretary under Truss, vowed to tear up restrictions for farmers and there were whispers of a return to area-based payments.
Thankfully, Thursday’s announcement shows the schemes have not in fact been stripped of nature policies.
For instance, farmers will be paid to encourage predatory bugs on their farms to eat pests, rather than using pesticides. This is despite intense lobbying from the pesticide industry, which funds an all-party parliamentary group whose members have called for nature schemes to be diluted, and rumors that the policy – named integrated pest management – would be removed from the scheme.
Craig Bennett, chief executive of the Wildlife Trusts, has tentatively welcomed the announcement, in particular the plans for integrated pest management.
“We are facing nothing short of a crisis in the loss of the abundance in critical insect populations and yet if you look at pollinators these are the exact same species that we depend on for our food security,” he said.
Another part of the scheme, called landscape recovery, would be a payment to clusters of farmers who work together to rebuild an entire landscape, which could be an ancient woodland that borders their farms, or salt marsh, or wetland.
Some in the farming sector, including Minette Batters, the president of the National Farmers’ Union, have argued that this is not farming, it is creating nature reserves, and it should be privately funded with this money going to “sustainable farming” instead, but the policy has been retained.
Twenty-two landowners or groups of farmers were granted funding for landscape recovery last year and this year there is an opportunity for 25 more to join the scheme.
Bennett pointed out that this was the only part of the scheme that was currently oversubscribed. “It is really important that Defra [the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs] provides the requisite budget for landscape recovery as it is proving very, very popular.”
While the ambition in the schemes seems to be positive for nature, one crucial overarching question concerns the money. As ministers have rolled out the funding schemes, the government has slowly been cutting how much farmers are paid under the old area-based policy, meaning there could be a cash shortfall of up to 30% for each farm.
The government has been cagey about giving information on how much money they paid for each scheme last year, and there are doubts that it has made up the shortfall in the rural economy as the old area-based payments are wound down. Ministers have repeatedly refused to disclose this information, making it difficult for farmers to sign up when they do not have the data.
Batters told the Guardian: “Why is this information not in the public domain? Why can’t we have a detailed breakdown of which pots those monies are in and how they can be accessible? Because farmers at the moment do not know what is going on.
“A transparent approach would make a huge difference. Farmers really want to be able to deliver more for the environment alongside food production, but they need clarity or they will not sign up, so I feel we’re in the last chance saloon.”
There are also questions about whether this new policy will really create a more equal playing field for farmers, with small organic growers reaping similar rewards to large arable growers.
But it does look at first glance like the schemes will deliver for nature if they have enough take-up and are funded properly.
New payments rolling out this year will incentivise farmers to manage hedgerows for wildlife, plant wildflower meadows and clean up our rivers.
Another bonus is the sign-up process has been simplified, with many farmers saying they can now register for certain payments within half an hour using the government website when previously it was prohibitively difficult.
Bennett sums it up: “We still don’t know whether it will be as ambitious as Michael Gove’s first vision, but we get a sense now that things are starting to move in the right direction – however there is still a long way to go .”