Healthy food

Ministers may go ahead with nature-friendly scheme, farmers believe

Farmers in England say they are increasingly optimistic that the government may yet row back on its plans to cut funding for nature-friendly farming initiatives.

The farming minister, Mark Spencer, this week met the RSPB and the chair of the Nature Friendly Farming Network (NFFN), both organisations that had been critical of plans to remove subsidies for creating wildlife habitats.

The charities, along with the Country Land and Business Association, had reacted with fury to these plans and have been lobbying ministers to keep the subsidies. Spencer and other ministers decried their concerns as inaccurate and “completely irresponsible”, suggesting it was a tactic to boost their membership.

Ministers are reviewing the Environmental Land Management Scheme (Elms), which was designed to replace EU farming subsidies after Brexit. The review is expected to be published late next week.

The original plan, the brainchild of Michael Gove when he was the environment secretary, was for land managers to be paid for “public goods” such as creating habitats for wildlife or preserving biodiversity, rather than simply for how much land they owned.

However, it was understood that the new environment secretary, Ranil Jayawardena, was puzzled by the idea of what he saw as paying farmers not to produce food, for example by setting aside less productive land to become a better wildlife habitat, and as one of his first acts in post he commissioned a review of the scheme.

It was understood that the parts that would involve paying farmers to create habitats would be cut, while the parts rewarding sustainable farming – such as using fewer pesticides – would stay.

On Monday, Spencer visited Hope Farm, the RSPB’s experimental nature-friendly farm, where he suggested that the wildlife-friendly practices the farm is known for could be included in the post-Brexit funding scheme.

Spencer said that the farm, where nature-friendly practices have seen a significant increase in the number of birds while maintaining the same level of food production, could be an example to use in the Elms review.

“The RSPB’s work at Hope Farm … demonstrates how profitable farming, food production, and protecting and enhancing the environment go hand in hand,” he said.“As we look at how best to deliver and improve our environmental schemes, we will strengthen the resilience and role of farmers as stewards of the British countryside while continuing to pursue our commitment to halt the decline of nature by 2030 whilst maintaining food production.”

Spencer also visited Martin Lines, the chair of the NFFN and an arable farmer who has left the unproductive areas of the land he owns and rents them for nature.

On visiting Lines’ rewilding area, Spencer observed: “Environmental schemes can be an extra income stream for areas of unproductive farmland that can deliver for the environment and biodiversity.”

Lines said: “It was a bit of a last-minute notification but we were very pleased to welcome him here this morning. He came here and was pleased to see how we are delivering for the environment and food production, and hopefully took inspiration away in his thoughts in the review for Elms.”

Lines said he felt “a bit more encouraged” about the prospects for the review after speaking to Spencer, and that he felt there could be a U-turn in sight.

Lines said: “I was able to clearly demonstrate and explain to him how the science shows that good healthy nature-rich landscapes enhance profitability and productivity. We are improving our productivity and our margins.”An RSPB spokesperson said: “It was great to show the farming minister how the RSPB’s arable farm in Cambridgeshire proves that you can both produce food profitably and restore nature. There was much talk about how, in return for public funding, farmers can be supported to farm in a way that protects the natural environment.”

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said it would not comment on the specifics of the scheme until the review is published.

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