Farm payment scheme shows 'shocking lack of ambition', say nature groups

Environment secretary George Eustice has revealed more details about the Sustainable Farming Incentive

Environment secretary George Eustice has revealed more details about the Sustainable Farming Incentive scheme - Credit: Archant / CLA

The government's much-vaunted new green payment scheme has earned a lukewarm response from East Anglian farmers - while conservationists criticised its "shocking lack of ambition" for helping wildlife.

Environment secretary George Eustice outlined how the government aims to help farmers "deliver on environmental priorities to tackle biodiversity loss and climate change". 

He also revealed some long-awaited details of the Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI), due to be rolled out next year.

It is the first of three new environmental land management (ELM) schemes being introduced while the EU's system of land-based subsidies is being phased out after Brexit.

Farmers will be paid for providing environmental benefits, such as improving grasslands and soils.

But the payment rates prompted disappointment from farmers, who questioned whether they reflected the cost of providing these so-called "public goods".

Gary Ford, East Anglia regional director for the National Farmers' Union (NFU), said: “Farm businesses in East Anglia have been crying out for clarity around the scheme so today’s announcement is a step forward. However, we need further steps before farmers have enough information to make informed decisions.

“It is crucial that the SFI recognises the significant costs farmers could incur in delivering public goods and that this is reflected in the payment rates. All this is happening against a backdrop of direct payments being phased out so it is critically important that Defra makes the right decisions. 

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“This issue must be addressed if Defra is to attract the participation that it anticipates and that is required to deliver the environmental ambition of the scheme.”

Meanwhile, the announcement was described as a "huge disappointment" by the UK's three largest nature charities.

The Wildlife Trusts, National Trust and RSPB said the scheme missed an opportunity to boost nature-friendly farming, potentially putting promises made by the government in its 25-year environment plan in jeopardy. 

Craig Bennett, chief executive of The Wildlife Trusts, said it shows a "shocking lack of ambition which does very little to address the climate and nature crises". 

Eliot Lyne, chief executive of the Norfolk Wildlife Trust, added: "In light of the huge challenges our natural environment faces, it is vital that agricultural productivity in Norfolk does not come at a cost to our wildlife.

"We already know from our collaborative work with Norfolk landowners that there are better ways forward for farming and wildlife. 

Eliot Lyne, chief executive of Norfolk Wildlife Trust

Eliot Lyne, chief executive of Norfolk Wildlife Trust - Credit: Danielle Booden

“Norfolk has always been a pioneering county for farming, and this is equally the case for regenerative agriculture. Across the county, we are seeing a great many landowners leading the way in farming with nature, environment, climate and human wellbeing in mind.  

“With adequate support, our farmers are vitally positioned to help create a healthier, more resilient, natural landscape.  

“If farmers are not properly incentivised as we fight species loss and climate change then countless extremely rare species with a stronghold in Norfolk face national extinction.” 

Mr Eustice made the announcement at the Country Land and Business Association (CLA) conference.

Cath Crowther, regional director for CLA East. Picture: Sonya Duncan

Cath Crowther, regional director for CLA East. Picture: Sonya Duncan - Credit: Sonya Duncan

CLA East regional director Cath Crowther said it was a "major milestone" for agricultural incentive schemes, with "great importance for farmers and landowners here in the east".

But she said there were still many concerns over farm finances as the Basic Payment Scheme, which distributes the current subsidies, is phased out.

“Make no mistake, whilst many farmers are very supportive of the direction of travel, they are deeply concerned about the transition from the old regime to the new, particularly regarding imminent cuts to the Basic Payment Scheme," she said.

"Whilst high commodity prices in some sectors will help cushion the blow, we should remember that many farms operate on small profit margins.

"It is therefore incumbent on government to ensure every farmer is supported in the years ahead."

Mr Eustice said the government needed to be clear about the policy outcomes it seeks, adding: "These are to halt the decline in species abundance by 2030; to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions; to plant up to 10,000 hectares of trees per year in England, to improve water quality; to create more space for nature in the farmed landscape; and to ensure that we have a vibrant and profitable food and farming industry.”

PAYMENT RATES

The Sustainable Farming Incentive will initially allow farmers to select from three "standards" to deliver improved outcomes for the environment.

  • The Arable and Horticultural Soils standard offers between £22 - £40 per hectare and includes activities such as testing of soil organic matter. 
  • The Improved Grassland Soils standard offers between £28 - £58 per hectare for activity including producing a soil management plan or herbal leys on at least 15pc of land. 
  • The Moorland and Rough Grazing standard offers £148 fixed per agreement per year, plus an additional variable payment rate of £6.45 per hectare.

Defra said farmers will be able to access up to £58 per hectare for improving soils from next year. As the rollout progresses, further standards will be included to deliver wider environmental outcomes, such as improving hedgerows and combining trees or shrubs with crop and livestock farming.

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