CONSERVATION

Could payment by results be the future for agri-environment schemes?

Last month I put together our countryside stewardship package (applying for next year) which involved trawling through hundreds of options and weighing up the relative benefits and drawbacks both in terms of conservation and the practicalities of farm management. Anybody who has gone through a similar experience will know the rigidity of the requirements for each option. In essence, so long as the management and evidence criteria are fulfilled, there shouldn’t be any problems but the system is very paperwork heavy and seems to be more about process than results.

Format

Interestingly, a new format of agri-environment scheme is currently being trialled in North Yorkshire, Norfolk and Suffolk, and it has the capacity to revolutionise the way that farmland conservation is undertaken. The key characteristic of this experimental model is that there are no defined management requirements, unlike the existing model. Farmers are free to manage the land however they think is most suitable and are purely judged on the results they achieve. They are relieved of the current rigidities, the extra paperwork and record keeping. Further, they are not completely in the dark, as advice and training are provided if they wish it.

[perfectpullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=””#16989D=”” class=”” size=””]”The new format could revolutionise the way farmland conservation is undertaken”[/perfectpullquote]

The trial is being coordinated by Natural England and consists of two different pilots: one for grassland and the other arable. The grassland pilot is being delivered in partnership with the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority and involves 19 farms. The principal aims for these are to restore species rich hay meadows and establish good habitat for breeding waders such as curlew, redshank and lapwing. The arable pilot, which involves 15 farms in East Anglia, is focused on providing winter bird food and establishing pollen and nectar mixes.

Payments

All of the sites will be self-assessed annually against an agreed set of indicators and it will therefore be easy to see improvement year on year. Payment levels will depend on the parameters and success rates when compared against the agreed indicators, but in general, the greater the success of the project, the more money is paid. For example, with meadows, the more plant species that are found, the greater the payment will be (anything between £112-£371/ha). For winter bird seed mixes there are six tiers of payments ranging from £0-£842/ha depending on the number of plants that set seed. It should be said that these rates are for the pilot only and should not be taken as a clue regarding future rates.

It is only a pilot at this point in time but I think it has great potential as a model. After all, farmers know their land better than anyone, and will know the site specific conditions that each area of land entails. It is an example of a true partnership between farmer and advisor, and puts the power back into the hands of the farmer. In addition, it provides greater incentive to do a good job. The pilot will run for three years, after which it will be decided whether to roll it out more widely. As Brexit negotiations commence, thoughts turn to policy reform. Agri-environment schemes will surely be changed to fit within the new British Agricultural Policy (whatever form that takes). For me, payment based on results seems like a sensible way forward. We now have to wait three years to see the outcomes of the pilot.

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Ben Eagle

Conservation Editor Ben Eagle runs the regular 'Meet the Farmers' podcast series and writes at thinkingcountry.com

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