Is countryside stewardship bad for wildlife?

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.

On the beach at Walton Hall Farm; looking out across Hamford Water National Nature Reserve and the Walton Channel.

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.

8 thoughts on “Is countryside stewardship bad for wildlife?

  1. Ben. You focus in on a matter that ignores the plethora of social science that shines a light on the social skills required to engage farmers on delivery of habitat for biodiversity (in effect biodiversity offsetting required to offset the impact of all agricultural practices). One such ‘nudging’ example is here and I’ve written further here with links to further research
    Various evidence bases as to ‘What works in conservation’ are outlined within this newly revised book but without getting into the heads of farmers, are very hard to deliver outcomes on the ground.
    Work requiring some serious progress.

  2. Jilly Hall of Natural England has done some excellent work over a number of years around the subject of how to engage farmers and achieve behaviour change – just some examples here: – although I see little of this in the way Defra are currently delivering the Countryside Stewardship scheme. The Catchment Sensitive Farming approach seems to be more successful in engaging ‘target customers’ and actually achieving change, but it is a slow process! Does Defra have the time, resource or inclination to take engagement seriously? To achieve a sustainable change then commitment and resources will be required over a sustained period of many years, and also be reflected at all levels of government from policies in trade agreements all the way down to RPA information processors. It’s a tall order.

    1. Thanks for this comment Becky. You have hit the nail on the head when you mention resources. Dwindling capacity will more than likely be a trajectory of our times and all of us involved in the broad ag/env/land sector are going to have to learn to live with a smaller pot of gold. This does not mean however that there aren’t other options. Thinking outside the box and being innovative will, I think, be key. However, I worry that if farmers are not given sufficient support (and if farm advisers such as those from FWAG, which does an absolutely amazing job at providing a bona fide extension service, also lose resources) then their capacity to undertake beneficial conservation work will also dwindle in scope and breadth. As Rob refers to above, social science needs to play a much stronger role, and we need to focus on how to inspire farmers to undertake targeted conservation work OUTSIDE the formal schemes, rather than simply the conservation itself. Both are important.

      Although it might not seem it above, I am largely a fan of the new Countryside Stewardship scheme. The available options are broad and enables targeted and beneficial work. However, as said in the post, the perceived (and real) complexities of it are predictably putting a lot of people off engaging. We cannot afford to lose those who are already engaged in the process. We need to learn how to inspire others and support them in a partnership manner, rather than a headteacher manner.

      1. Thanks Ben, always good to hear nice things about FWAG! And I think your final line summed it up, at a lot of workshops I attend and meeting with other advisers, I always end up musing on the fact that we are good people, we know our stuff, we all have a similar vision, but we still have a long way to go in working with farmers in a true partnership.

  3. Great paper, Becky, from Jilly Hall.
    “Farmers regained feelings of control over their land and public goods were provided at minimal cost to the public purse.”
    In reality, it’s about engendering that exact feeling (plenty will hate that as they think farmers have had control for too long) but if they deliver outcomes at minimal cost to public funds, what’s not to like.
    Farmer Clusters work as they are driven by farmers, not prescriptive forms or ‘owned’ by conservation NGOs.
    Subtle stuff not suiting shouty ‘civil’ society at the moment.

    1. I’ve seen Jilly speak a couple of times and she’s really very good, very engaging and practical. I’d like to see her perspective aired more often!
      And yes hopefully the cluster approach will catch on – there are benefits from joint working, even (especially?) for farmers, as the Focus Farms and AHDB Monitor Farms are increasingly showing.

  4. This is all very interesting and the current scheme is not fit for purpose, for many reasons. I have already highlighted one of its major deficiencies in my own blog (see However, it seems to me that in all the debate about future farming no one has highlighted the paucity of relevant environmental education embedded in farming qualifications. Even a guy or gal driving a tractor should know the basics of how to use the machine to protect soils. We need an evidence review to identify ‘what farmers need to know’ to embrace the natural capital agenda, and then get the relevant learning embedded in all manner of qualifications, not as an add on. Many farmers are hard to engage because they are ignorant but think they know everything they need to know, never had any education about how to look after soils, hedges and the land – hence we are in this fine mess. (Our catchment is a case in point, where we have intensive livestock farming and far too much waste being poured on the land to the detriment to our river). I get regular feedback from a friend who is currently doing an agricultural degree. He tells me that in a 3 year degree foundation course all he learned about soil was the difference between silt, sand and clay. Also a large no of colleges are wedded to the chemical agri industrial trajectory and their farms managed by a single agribusiness company (which, incidentally, just ploughed up all its permanent pasture on one college farm). Equally, environmental scientists should be required to have some basic land use management knowledge embedded in their learning and, if they are going to end up advising farmers, should do a compulsory module on farming systems. Education and learning MUST be part of the new farming and environment plans, without improving what the offer is now, those that are tasked with delivering these plans will not have the basic knowledge to deliver. I will be writing on this matter more widely and will continue to raise it until it is acknowledged by all the organisations which need to work together to engender change in our deficient education and learning system (not the least due to the lack of any skills council, and leadership delegated to ‘industry’). There is the same problem with building and builders, hence you will see me repeatedly tweet issues relating to the bad state of new houses because builders actually don’t know how to build them properly to meet their energy specification.

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