How Successful has Environmental Stewardship been in improving the state of nature on Farmland?

On 1st January this year the ‘Countryside Stewardship Scheme’ (CSS) came into force across England as the new environmental management scheme for improving the state of nature on our farms across the nation. Despite its name it is very different to the previous ‘countryside stewardship scheme’ which closed in 2004 (the people at Defra could have been more imaginative with the name I feel) and it replaces the ‘environmental stewardship’ (ES) scheme which consisted on ‘entry level’ and ‘higher level’ schemes’ and closed at the end of last year. However, to what extent was the closing ‘ES’ scheme a success and will the new scheme be any different?

At a time when Rewilding Britain is building momentum should we be looking at moving towards large scale landscape change or should we be concentrating on improving the state of wildlife within the current agricultural landscape?

My short hand answer to this is that rewilding has its place but critically we should be working to improve the state of nature across all ecosystems and this includes agro-ecosystems. Many species, both at home in the UK and around the world depend on farmland for their survival.

However, we face an uphill battle. The 2013 State of Nature Report highlighted the following statistics:

  • Of 1,064 farmland species for which we have trends, 60% have decreased and 34% have decreased strongly.
  • 14% of all farmland flowering plants are on the national Red List: 62 species in all.
  • 64% of farmland moths and 70% of carabid beetles studied are declining, with few species increasing.
  • Farmland bird populations declined rapidly during the 1970s and 1980s, and by 2000 their numbers were just half what they were in 1970.

These trends are backed up by more recent data established within the UK government’s ongoing report system for farmland wildlife.


Left: Gatekeeper butterfly

Butterfly species in severe decline on farmland include gatekeeper, large skipper, small copper, small tortoiseshell,wall and white-letter hairstreak.

‘Generalist’ birds on farmland such as jackdaw, woodpigeon and reed bunting appear to be faring better than specialists such as corn bunting, grey partridge, lapwing, goldfinch, skylark, tree sparrow, yellowhammer and turtle dove.

Clearly, we need to be doing more. Environmental Stewardship came on board in 2005 and one would have hoped to look back and to have seen greater successes than the bad news expressed in the trends above.

So, what was (this should be ‘is’ really as some agreements are continuing and will be for a number of years) Environmental Stewardship?

ES was launched in March 2005 by Defra (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) with an aim in mind of securing widespread environmental benefits.

Very briefly its four key aims were:

  • To improve water quality and reduce soil erosion
  • To improve conditions for farmland wildlife
  • To maintain and enhance landscape character
  • To protect the historic environment

Options for management through ES ranged from management of hedgerows to maintaining buffer strips, in field trees, low input grassland, arable reversion and working to enhance habitat for priority species. In many ways it was as broad as long. The scheme catered for many different scenarios. There was an option for ‘higher’ level schemes which required a greater amount of management but the reality was that most agreements were for ‘entry level’.


Unlike the new countryside stewardship scheme, ES was not competitive and so it was hoped that many farmers would take up agreements. In many ways, they did. At its height well over 50% of land was under one scheme or other and there was great optimism about improving the state of nature. However, subsequent data would suggest it wasn’t doing all that much towards achieving its noble aims. One of the key problems lay in the fact that signed agreements didn’t embrace the breadth of options necessary to bring about real change. Indeed, of the 60 options available, more than 50% of the agreements were for the 6 most popular options (field boundaries, hedge management etc), many of which farmers were already doing. Taxpayers were not getting value for money and critically the state of nature was not improving.

What was often forgotten in the agreements was that wildlife does not stick to the artificial boundaries that we give to the countryside through ownership title deeds. One farmer might be highly committed to wildlife and habitat conservation on his relatively small farm but if all of his neighbours did not engage in similar measures then the problems would persist. What was needed was an attempt at landscape scale conservation measures – something that is incidentally encouraged in the new countryside stewardship scheme, which surely can only be a positive. However, the real test will be whether these projects are actually taken up and on a big enough scale.


Environmental stewardship did not go far enough. However, the new countryside stewardship (CS) scheme looks to be having the opposite problem and its relative complexity is putting a lot of farmers off from taking up agreements. CS is far more targeted and there are many more options available. It is also competitive. However, will this intensify the problem and result in ‘the wrong kind of ‘mosaic of landscape’ in which diverse individual farms with positive habitat measures are very largely outnumbered by farms where production is the sole focus?

Of course under cross compliance the so called ‘greening measures’ (retention of permanent grassland, crop diversification rule and ecological focus areas) mean that every farm has to engage to a certain extent in ‘environmental measures’. However, many in the environmental lobby do not believe that the measures go far enough.

In order for schemes to be successful we need to follow the advice of the report published in 2010 by Sir John Lawton et al, entitled ‘Making Space for Nature’. We need to maintain our ‘ecological networks’ and make ‘more of them, make them bigger, better and more joined up’. The advice in the Lawton report fed into the Natural Environment White Paper (2011) but it’s debatable the extent to which the words contained in this report were merely rhetoric. In the end, it is down to individual farmers and landowners to opt in to the schemes that are most likely to encourage positive change.

In many ways we will have to wait another ten years before we know if the various environmental management measures we are implementing are actually making a difference to the state of nature. However, we can look at certain clues. In September 2014 Natural England carried out an assessment of the effects of environmental stewardship on improving the ecological status of grassland, moorland and heath (NECR156). The key summary conclusion was thus:

‘Overall, given the short period in HLS agreement for most of the sites, this study has not been able to show that HLS consistently improves all features and habitats when applied, but it has shown that HLS has generally been well targeted with management options chosen that are suitable for the condition of the habitat at the chosen location.’

This is the problem we face. Environmental measures have not been in place for enough time for us to make core conclusions as to their relative success. We can only hope that wildlife observations begin to improve in terms of the abundance and overall population health of species.


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