At the time of writing, the world is rightly focused on urgent actions to minimise the terrible impact of COVID-19 on individuals, communities and nations. British farmers are emerging from one of wettest winters in recent memory, and the framework of laws and processes guiding how we care for land and produce safe food is in a state of political transition.
What – then – should we focus on?
We all have many roles in life. Whether you are part of the Food Army diligently feeding the nation, a custodian of the countryside, a parent, a child – each of us is first a human. So however you are feeling amid the current health emergency, whatever you need to do to look after yourself, your loved ones, and animals and plants in your care, do it well, and take whatever time is needed to do so. This is the first priority.
When that is in hand, we must then remember to consider the future, and set aside some time to develop long term goals and plans for the farm business.
As we know, the Government plans to reduce the Basic Payment Scheme from next year. The replacement payment scheme, the Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS) is due to be launched from 2024, with payments made for ‘public goods’. Public goods are goods or services that benefit people, but for which there is currently no economic market. ELMS intends to pay for goods such as clean water, thriving wildlife, enhanced landscapes and measures to minimise the impact of climate change.
You can’t provide public goods unless you first have natural capital – the ‘stuff’ that nature gives us for free, such as soil, water, air and species. ELMS is likely to take a natural capital approach to payments. At the moment, agri-environment schemes pay largely on the basis of income foregone; a natural capital-based payment arrangement could therefore look very different to schemes we’ve had so far.
Once you know what direction you want to take, think about the individuals or organisations who could be in a position to support you.
If ELMS payments are based on provision of public goods, do you already know what public goods your land is providing, where and possibly how much? Take some simple steps now to start to identify what natural capital you’ve got.
• Look up MAGIC maps online and check for key habitats.
• If you’ve got flower-rich grasslands or wetlands with breeding waders, document them and get them appropriately mapped by Natural England.
• Work with specialists (professional or volunteers) to identify some of the species your farm supports.
It’s important to note that recording wildlife habitats need not mean making that information available to the public. However, national inventories of Priority Habitat are already being used by national projects to make important decisions – and poor data definitely risks making very poor decisions!
You might not be in a position right away to progress the way you’d like to. But with innovative funding schemes emerging all the time, it’s a good idea to have a ready made ‘wish list’ of projects or equipment that you’d like to take forward if and when possible. Keep an eye out for ‘Payments for Ecosystem Services’ schemes by private businesses and ‘Biodiversity Net Gain’ by Local Planning Authorities and evaluate them carefully.
Countryside Stewardship is available to new applicants until 2023. If you don’t already have a Stewardship agreement, it can be a useful stepping-stone towards ELMS, as well as supporting measures required by certification initiatives such as Fair to Nature. And those in Countryside Stewardship will be able to transfer directly into ELMS in future if they wish to.
You can use Countryside Stewardship to build your natural capital ahead of ELMS coming online. For example, restoring unimproved grasslands, wetlands and hedgerows. All the habitat components required by Fair to Nature are also supported – for example, buffer strips (e.g. SW1 at £353/ha) and grassland field corners (GS1 at £365/ha), flower-rich areas (AB8 at £539/ha) and herbal leys (GS4 at £309/ha), winter bird food (AB9 at £640/ha) and seed-set ryegrass (GS3 at £331/ha)
Winter cover crops can be a very effective way of improving the health of your soil, with associated benefits for water storage and drainage. Stewardship offers £114 per hectare for them. Struggling with blackgrass or need an alternative break to oilseed rape? It’s worth looking at the two-year sown legume fallow option which is worth £522 per hectare. There are also capital grants to fence livestock out of hedges, woods or watercourses, and – depending on where you are – you may be eligible for capital grants to resurface muddy gateways, provide hard-standing livestock troughs and even sprayer washdown areas and biofilters.
In a time of change, it can be easy to be swept away. Stay grounded and choose your own course. And remember that you never have to journey alone.
Kirsty Brannan is a Farm Conservation Advisor for Oakbank Game & Conservation – one of a team of experienced staff helping farms and estates develop and deliver wildlife habitat projects on farmland and woodland. They also specialise in the supply of seeds and plants for conservation, game, regenerative agriculture and woodland.