As part of this, the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) has opened a public consultation on the proposed new Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS). This will be DEFRA’s cornerstone agricultural policy paying farmers and other land managers for taking a range of different actions to protect and improve the natural environment. The core concept of ELMS is paying farmers “public money” to deliver environmental “public goods”.
The proposed scheme has three tiers:
Aimed at individual farmers and landowners, the entry tier would incentivise environmentally sustainable farming and forestry methods, similar to the existing Mid Tier scheme. Activities that could be supported by these payments include the efficient use and storage of water, field margins, cover crops , limiting livestock grazing to avoid soil compaction, and other soil, pest and nutrient management measures. Options could be tailored to specific farm types i.e. arable, livestock or dairy, or a menu of options would allow applicants to choose what to deliver.
The second and third tiers are labelled in the consultation document as being relevant to broader land management activities, rather than agriculture itself, and would encourage collaboration between farmers and land managers.
Activities would focus on what is needed in particular geographies, such as the planting of trees, shrubs or hedges, measures to mitigate flooding as well as protecting species rich habitat, in addition to activities such as maintaining rights of way or creating “education infrastructure”. This tier would be similar to the existing Higher Tier scheme.
Tier 3 is likely to be the most complex with an emphasis on delivering national landscape land-use change and payments could be accessed by creating, restoring or improving environments such as peatland, forests, woodland, wetlands and salt marsh.
There are a number of areas of uncertainty across all three tiers, and the scheme itself, such as assessment criteria and the length of individual ELMS agreements. For farmers in particular, it remains to be seen whether they might be told which specific Tier 1 activities they must undertake in order to receive payments, or whether they will have some choice in the matter.
Defra promises that when implementing the scheme, it will “give farmers clear guidance on what they need to do in order to deliver environmental outcomes while keeping their financial and delivery risks low”. It also says it wants to avoid being inflexible or overly prescriptive.
That sounds good in principle, if Defra can pull it off. Nonetheless, by 2028 when the phasing out of the Basic Payments Scheme is complete, ELMS will be the main source of alternative funding and current indications are that payments will be significantly reduced.
The drastically changing funding landscape, the likelihood of increasing levels of scrutiny around the environmental impact of agriculture, and other factors including changes to migration policy, all add up to a complex picture for farmers. Those who aren’t already reassessing how to make a living from their land, would be wise to start.
The ELMS consultation runs until 5 May.