Anybody who has had to trawl through the new countryside stewardship package, as I have this last fortnight, will know quite how much of a task it is. Hundreds of pages of options are available, which has good and bad sides to it. Fundamentally I think it is an effective package, enabling most possibilities in terms of protecting species and boosting habitat availability. However, it remains relatively inflexible in terms of disabling conservation innovation. For example, we are currently assessing our sea walls on the farm, and change would perhaps result in new field boundaries and new land pockets that would be perfect for habitat creation (looking to encourage wildlife and ecotourism). It’s very doubtful that new CS would work in sync with this, so we are having to decide between one and the other at this stage. We are restricted to the options in front of us, so that an official can tick their boxes. This said, for conventional conservation practice, most things can be done. Having been part of the higher level for several years now, we want to concentrate not just on maintaining the ground we have made, but becoming a flagship for good farmland conservation, putting ‘productive’ conservation as an aim in its own right, not just something to complement food production.
There has been a lot in the farming press recently slamming the new scheme, and particularly Natural England’s ability to administer it. Two months after the official start date for 2017 agreements (1st January 2017), many farmers still don’t know whether their applications have been successful. Some of the options require management work before the end of March – for example anyone who has said they want to plant new hedgerow needs to have done so before 31st March). If they don’t fulfill the work in the right way, they probably won’t get paid. Having budgeted for countryside stewardship payments this year within their overall farm income, this could have problematic cashflow issues for them; which shouldn’t have to be a concern.
To be fair to them, Natural England’s resources are stretched widely, with a lot of personnel power being push towards the Rural Payments Agency to administer Basic Payment, which is also under strain. The heavy evidence requirements for many of the schemes, which need to be checked, puts NE staff under even greater time pressure. However, leaving farmers in the lurch like this is quite understandably putting them off signing up for future schemes.
Some farmers are put off doing conservation work at all because they, again quite understandably, can’t see how they will make a profit doing so. They would rather put a field down to wheat or a rye grass ley as close to the allowed margin as possible. Payments are only given for what might be lost to compensate them if there had been a crop in the ground. Often farmers end up spending more than they would like on undertaking the scheme. In our particular case, on our farm, we can see it as an opportunity, with ecotourism a clear future for our business. We can capitalise on our conservation. However, for many farmers I can see that this is far more difficult. We are fortunate enough to have a national nature reserve in our midst and a tourist town on our doorstep. Not everyone has this.
The perception is that countryside stewardship is too complicated to carry out practically, not financially worthwhile and that Natural England are overly stretched to enable efficient payments. This does it no favours and there is a danger that more damage will be done than ground gained in farmland conservation over the next few years. Less than 1/3 of farmers coming out of ELS and HLS schemes are signing on to new countryside stewardship. This is not a good sign. There may have been inefficiencies in the broad and shallow approach previously available through ELS, but at least it meant that the vast majority of farmers were directly engaging with conservation on farm.
We need to shift the narrative about farmland conservation and give farmers tangible benefits for engaging in conservation measures. Post Brexit I hope we will see more focus on ecosystem service payments as well as targeted conservation schemes for those who are best suited to it. There needs to be a certain amount of stick, but not if it is covered in paperwork. Whilst the old set aside days had their problems, it at least meant that large areas of land were available for wildlife, and it was easy to understand. If set aside could be ‘managed’, then we might be on to something. The ‘Ecological Focus Areas’ on farm might seem a good thing on paper but, yet again, they are overly complex on the ground, and take away from enabling real conservation innovation on farms. EFAS are an added complication to any stewardship agreement.
There is some good stuff happening currently but in the usual way, we have overcomplicated it, overly-bureaucratised it and stifled innovation. After all, we desperately need conservation innovation just as much as we need technical and agronomic innovation. With farmers leaving schemes in their droves I just hope that countryside stewardship won’t be fundamentally bad for wildlife in the medium term.