Farmers in England will be able to receive government funding for up to 280 different actions that protect the environment, from conserving hedgerows to maintaining peatlands, under a comprehensive overhaul of farming subsidies.
The long-awaited announcement on Thursday shows farmers what will be expected of them if they apply for government incentives called environmental land management schemes (ELMs), worth £2.4bn a year for this parliament.
Farmers welcomed the announcement for providing clarity on the new payment plans, which have taken five years to draw up and are a post-Brexit replacement for the EU common agricultural policy (Cap).
Unlike the Cap, which provided farmers incentives based mainly on the acreage they farmed, the overhaul is meant to reward farmers for protecting nature and improving the environment. But critics warned that big arable farmers were still likely to reap the biggest rewards under the new plans, with meagre pickings for small farmers and those in difficult environments, such as upland and moorland regions.
Rates of payment for most of the 280 measures were set out in a 101-page document. The payments cover nearly every aspect of farming and are aimed at helping farmers to become more environmentally sustainable, use less insecticide and reduce pollution and other impacts on the natural world while producing more food.
Payments will vary widely depending on the actions farmers undertake. For instance, farmers will be paid as much as £537 a hectare for creating fenland out of lowland peat and £1,920 a hectare for maintaining land to produce fruit to organic standards, down to £22 a hectare for assessing soils and £10.38 for establishing a skylark plot.
Some are broad – £22 a hectare for adding organic matter to soil, or having green cover on at least 70% of land over winter – and some detailed, such as £120 to £150 for maintaining sphagnum moss to capture and store carbon.
The prospectus will be pored over by farmers, who will be able to “stack” different payments and incentives, drawing on as many as they can apply to their farm. The payments are meant to provide “public money for public goods”, to replace the subsidies from the EU common agricultural policy, and have taken nearly five years to draw up after interim measures met with mixed success.
Thérèse Coffey, the secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs, 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 rollout of our farming schemes so that everyone can be financially supported as they protect the planet while producing food more sustainably.”
Applications for some of the payments will open in February, with others to follow in March, and some will be rolled out later in the year and next year.
Officials said the application and payment systems had been streamlined, so that farmers should find it easy to apply, with forms that should take no longer than 45 minutes to fill, without requiring professional help.
Mark Tufnell, the president of the Country Land and Business Association, which represents about 28,000 farmers, landowners and rural business owners, said: “This is crunch time for a sector that has stoically tolerated years of turbulence and uncertainty. These standards and payment rates are broadly in line with what was expected, and will encourage many arable farmers to take the leap into the new agricultural schemes. But there is little new in this for those on moorlands, or the hard-pressed hill farmer struggling to earn a living.”
He added: “The move towards payment for environmental delivery is a welcome one – it will benefit the planet, the public and, in time, the farmer. It places England as a world leader in greener agriculture. But this major change in agricultural policy comes at a time of rampant inflation, poor labour supply and constant extreme weather events. The stakes for farmers could not be higher, and it is incumbent on the UK government to make these schemes accessible to all types of farms, thus giving the industry the confidence we need to make these schemes work.”
Previous improvements to the payment regime, announced earlier this month, were widely criticised as too little, and farmers have been slow to take up the measures. The Guardian revealed that only 224 farmers had received payments last year.
Sustainable farming experts said the schemes did not go far enough to bring about the changes needed to rescue the UK’s natural environment, which has been degraded after decades of intensive farming and a lack of focus on nature protection.
Last week, the regulatory watchdog, the Office for Environmental Protection, criticised the government for falling short on almost every environmental measure. Martin Lines, the chair of the Nature Friendly Farming Network, said Thursday’s announcement was positive but did not go far enough. “Individual actions on their own won’t achieve our climate and nature targets,” he said. “There remains the need for join-up between actions to avoid a piecemeal approach.”
Gareth Morgan, the head of farming policy at the Soil Association, added: “The government is failing to make clear how they will give farmers confidence to invest in the radical changes needed for a resilient and sustainable, agroecological farming sector. We are facing a climate emergency and ecological collapse – there are welcome elements in today’s announcement but we must stop tinkering around the edges.”
Jim McMahon MP, Labour’s Shadow Environment Secretary, said: “[The government’s] failed delivery continues to squeeze the farming community. Nothing about this announcement suggests anything other than a continuation of the last six years of Tory chaos on these issues – low take-up and botched trade deals that undercut our farmers and standards. Our farmers need a straightforward and simple ELMS scheme.”