The New Environmental Land Management Scheme: putting life back in the countryside?

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I’ve been the RSPB’s Conservation Director since May 2011. As I settle into the job, I’ll be blogging on all the big conservation topics and providing an inside view of our conservation projects. I hope you enjoy reading it and feel inspired to join in t

The New Environmental Land Management Scheme: putting life back in the countryside?

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In the week when Meurig Raymond succeeded Peter Kendall as the President of the NFU (seehere),  Defra has announced (see here) more details about how farmers will be rewarded to protect the environment and recover farmland wildlife.  Details of the Environmental Land Management Scheme (NELMS) for England have emerged and I am pleased to say that we are pretty pleased with what is being proposed.

Those of you that have been following the endless and painful saga of Common Agriculture Policy reform and implementation will remember that about £3 billion of the £15 billion that will be given to farmers in England over the next seven years will be used to support wildlife-friendly farming.  We wanted it to be more, but we lost that particular debate.   Earlier in the month, I wrote about how the £12 billion could be made to work much harder especially to prevent flooding (see here).  But we were also keen that the new scheme built on the experience of the past twenty years, that it was well-designed and that it focused on meeting government's biodiversity commitments (especially for sites, species and habitats).  

The good news is that Defra says that "biodiversity should be the priority for the scheme and we [Defra] will seek to maximise opportunities to deliver biodiversity, water quality and flooding benefits together”.  

Andy Hay (rpsb-images.com)

Defra have also announced a shift away from the ‘spray and pray’ approach of Entry Level Stewardship (ELS), with a commitment to ‘directed option choice’. This means agreements should include the right mix of options for the priorities that they’re trying to address. So if a farm is in a farmland bird hotspot, the design of NELMS should ensure that it provides the ‘Big 3’ management prescriptions for farmland birds: a safe place for birds to nest, enough food to rear their chicks and enough food to survive the winter.   Based on our research and experience at places like Hope Farm, we have been calling for this for some time and this new approach could, whisper it quietly, help to reverse the declines in farmland bird. 

The strength of the old Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) has also been recognised.   This site-specific package, supported by expert advice from Natural England and Forestry Commission will still be available.  I am also pleased to see attempts to incentivise collaboration between farmers encouraging them to bid together for funds (akin to the Nature Improvement Area competition).  Anything that encourages landscape-scale action is good news for wildlife.  More sympathetic management over a larger area (such as the Thorney Farmland Bird Friendly Zone involving 14 farmers and 3,782 ha - see here) is something that must be encouraged.

It's not all perfect (the proposed universal capital grant scheme which will struggle to deliver environmental benefits) yet our first impressions are that this new scheme is good news for wildlife and for farmers.  The Defra team have done a good job.

But uncertainties remain.

How the pot will be divided up between the competing objectives?  Biodiversity is the ‘overall priority’, but Defra also expect the new scheme to realise ‘synergistic outcomes’.  What are they and do they exist in practice?  The announcement focused on biodiversity, water quality and flood risk management (FRM), but also notes that “nonetheless we have concluded that the new scheme should be broad in scope”, with soil management, historic environment, landscape, genetic conservation and educational access all remaining priorities. If you were to put this in a pie chart, the balance of spend available for new schemes might look like simple chart below. That purple wedge will have to work pretty hard for those "other priorities".

And finally and perhaps most importantly, will farmers actually go for it? We’re hopeful that they will and I hope that the new President Meurig Raymond, gets behind the new scheme.  Wouldn't it be great if, in one of his early interventions, Mr Raymond made an clear statement about the need to farm profitably whilst helping to put wildlife back in the countryside?

What do you think about NELMS and the new President of the NFU?

It would be great to hear your views.

Comments
  • I wonder whether the Government will end up regretting it didn't modulate more as it emerges that new approaches to landuse are key to increasing resilience against flooding, soil; erosion etc ?

    I agree, what is proposed has real potential and it is good that ELS is sidelined - but what happened to ELS also illustrates a perennial risk in these schemes (starting way way back, ironically, with water levels in the Somerset Levels ESA); that farmers negotiate the conditions down to a point where they get the money without doing much good for the environment.

    But I'd suggest, most of all, we need to get beyond a siloed approach to one where even if the prime aim might be flood control, for example, biodiversity is not just 'mitigated' but enhanced as part of scheme design: an approach where the whole of the farmed landscape is seen as having conservation value, as indeed it does - a concept pioneered by the Forestry Commission in its new conservation policy statement published in - wait for it ! - 1986.  

  • All this sounds very welcome, Martin. Like anything to do with the CAP and farm payments things are never simple. It is very early days for the NELMS and the "devil can be in the detail" but, as you say, while not heralding it too loudly, let's hope that this marks a significant upward turning point for wildlife on our farms.

    I think the RSPB is to be especially congratulated on its far sighted approach to the purchase of Hope Farm and all the work it does there. Hopefully this work is now starting to have a real influence with DEFRA and the farming community across the country particularly in the guise of the NELMS.

    Finally, let's hope the new NFU president will bring in a much better spirit of cooperation between the NFU and wildlife conservation organisations. Mr Raymond will, of course be "batting" for farmers that is quite clear, but that does not preclude a much more constructive approach from the NFU to wildlife which hitherto we have struggled to recognise.