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Thérèse Coffey: Farmers central to food production and environmental action

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has today (Thursday 26 January 2023) set out detailed plans for the nation’s farming sector, supporting farmers to be profitable and resilient as they produce food sustainably while protecting nature and enhancing the environment.

The accelerated roll out of the Sustainable Farming Incentive – a key part of the Government’s Environmental Land Management schemes – will provide farmers with a diverse range of paid actions to manage hedgerows for wildlife, plant nectar-rich wildflowers and manage crop pests without the use of insecticides.

These incentives will make food production more resilient and efficient over the longer term whilst contributing towards the UK’s environmental goals on carbon, biodiversity, water quality and net zero. Together this will safeguard the long-term prosperity of the farming industry and protect the environment for future generations. 
   
Environment Secretary Thérèse Coffey said:

Farmers are at the heart of our economy – producing the food on our tables as well as being the custodians of the land it comes from.

These two roles go hand-in-hand and we are speeding up the roll out of our farming schemes so that everyone can be financially supported as they protect the planet while producing food more sustainably.

Environmental Land Management

Six additional standards will be added to the Sustainable Farming Incentive this year, meaning farmers can receive payment for actions on hedgerows, grassland, arable and horticultural land, pest management and nutrient management. They build on the three existing standards to improve soil health and moorlands introduced in 2022 – which nearly 1,900 farmers already have in agreements.

The Government has also detailed what farmers will be paid to deliver through an enhanced version of the Countryside Stewardship scheme, which will see around 30 additional actions available to farmers by the end of 2024. The expansion builds on the more than 250 actions farmers can take at present with the scheme seeing a 94% increase in uptake since 2020 and is now part of thousands of farm businesses. The next round of Countryside Stewardship Higher-Tier will open in February, with Mid-Tier following in March.

Countryside Stewardship Plus will reward farmers for taking coordinated action, working with neighbouring farms and landowners to support climate and nature aims. It will deliver the same high environmental ambition previously planned for Local Nature Recovery, including managing floodplain meadows to reduce flood risk and improve biodiversity, restoring and maintaining peatland for carbon capture and storage, and enhancing and managing woodland to mitigate against drought and enhance its resilience to climate change.

The scheme will also be improved so farmers benefit from greater flexibility over when they can apply and how they manage their agreements, with improved access for tenant farmers and increased access to Higher Tier options and agreements.

Elsewhere, following high demand last year, Defra has confirmed it will open applications for the second round of the Landscape Recovery scheme in the spring to support ambitious large-scale nature recovery projects, focusing on net zero, protected sites and habitat creation. This could include projects creating and enhancing woodlands, peatland, nature reserves and protected sites such as ancient woodlands, wetlands and salt marshes.

They involve groups of land managers and tenant farmers, working together to deliver a range of environmental benefits across farmed and rural landscapes. 22 projects began last year aiming to restore nearly 700km of rivers and protect and enhance 263 species.

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. The plans also deliver on the assurances provided by the Farming Minister earlier this month, during a speech at the Oxford Farming Conference announcing increased payment rates.

Further details on the new standards and payment rates being rolled for the Sustainable Farming Incentive as well as information on the future roll out of Countryside Stewardship Plus from 2024 is available on gov.uk.

Straightforward applications

The Sustainable Farming Incentive has been made as straightforward as possible to apply online for with farmers giving positive feedback over the simplicity and speed of the application.

The 2023 offer has been made as flexible and accessible as possible to enable farmers to get started in the scheme and start to deliver the outcomes for their business and the environment. These improvements are based on learnings from extensive pilots and feedback to make it simpler, clearer and more workable for farmers.

Over time, it will continue to evolve so that it supports and incentivises farmers to deliver the right combinations of actions, at the right scale, in the right places and in a joined-up way with their neighbours. This will be essential for us to make the required progress towards our environment and climate targets alongside food production.

Harry Baker Cresswell, an agent working with two arable farmers from Northumberland, said:

I work with two holdings which are part of the SFI pilot, neither of which were in existing schemes.

The application and payment experiences have been good to date, and the objectives of SFI for arable land have been clearly set out.

SFI is different to previous Environmental Stewardships models in that the option-requirements are much less prescriptive. This is welcome, but does require a little steering to ensure objectives are met – something that Defra has recognised with its SFI Management Payment.

This is a real step forward in the journey towards enthusing widespread participation in the ELM schemes.

Kitty Hamilton, a mixed farmer from East Lincolnshire, said:

The big positive of the SFI pilot is the flexibility, which we really like. We were able to retain habitats from previous schemes which we were really proud of. The pilot fits well with our current and planned farming methods, which means it’s gently nudging us towards a more regenerative system.

The fact that we can layer the standards, and use all of the land on the estate, means that we can generate a good income. Generally I’ve enjoyed engaging with the learning activities, helping us to upskill professionally and personally within our organisation.

Robin Milton, a livestock farmer from Exmoor, said:

We’ve been on three standards to give the SFI pilot a trial run because we felt it would benefit our business.

The application process was straight-forward and, although the guidance was lengthy, I learned quite a bit and we ended up doing more than we needed to – which isn’t a bad thing.

Taken together the Environmental Land Management schemes mean there is something on offer for every type of farmer.

For tenant farmers there is range of actions relevant to their holding, especially through the Sustainable Farming Incentive which has been designed with them in mind. Shorter three-year agreements have been introduced with no landlord consent required meaning the risk of entering an environmental scheme has been reduced considerably. There are also no penalties in the event a farmer leaves the scheme early.

Upland farmers can be paid for actions on moorland, grassland and upland peat with over 100 actions in all schemes applicable to them.  From this year, farmers in existing Higher Level Stewardship agreements will be able to expand their activities and increase their payments by having a Countryside Stewardship agreement as well.

The 2019 manifesto commitment maintains the annual farming budget of £2.4 billion until the end of this Parliament, with all reductions from farmers’ direct payments reinvested back into the sector. All three Environmental Land Management schemes are accessible to farmers with the budget managed flexibly so that we can achieve the best value for money and deliver the intended outcomes in ways that best suit farmers and land managers.

Source: GOV.UK