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Farmers in England will be able to receive government funding for up to 280 different environmental measures, from protecting hedgerows to maintaining peatlands, as part of a comprehensive review of farm subsidies.
Thursday’s long-awaited announcement shows farmers what to expect from them if they apply for government incentives called green land management schemes (ELMs), worth £2.4bn a year to this parliament.
Farmers welcomed the announcement providing transparency for the new payment plans, which took five years to develop and will replace the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) post-Brexit.
Unlike Cap, which provided farmers with incentives based mainly on the area they farmed, the review aims to reward farmers for protecting nature and improving the environment. But critics warn that large farmers can still reap the greatest benefits under the new plans, with modest harvests for small farmers and those in difficult conditions such as upland regions and moors.
Related: The new system of subsidies to farms could be beneficial for nature – if properly funded
The payment rates for most of the 280 activities are set out in a 101-page document. The payments cover almost every aspect of farming and are designed to help farmers become more environmentally sustainable, use less insecticides, and reduce pollution and other impacts on the natural world while producing more food.
Payments will vary significantly depending on the actions taken by farmers. For example, farmers will receive as much as £537 per hectare for creating lowland peat bogs and £1,920 per hectare for maintaining land for fruit production to organic standards, up to £22 per hectare for assessing soils and £10.38 for establishing a skylark plot.
Some are broad – £22 per hectare for adding organic matter to the soil or covering at least 70% of the land with greenery during the winter – and some detailed, such as £120 to £150 for maintaining sphagnum moss to capture and store carbon.
The prospectus will be reviewed by farmers who will be able to ‘stack’ the various payments and incentives using as many as they can apply to their farm. The payments are intended to provide “public money for public goods”, to replace subsidies from the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, and took nearly five years to draw up after the interim measures met with mixed success.
Thérèse Coffey, Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, said: “Farmers are at the heart of our economy – they produce the food on our tables and are also the custodians of the land it comes from. The two roles go hand-in-hand and we are accelerating our farming programs so that everyone can get financial support as they protect the planet while producing food more sustainably.”
Some payment applications will open in February, others in March and some will be rolled out later in the year and next year.
Officials said application and payment systems have been streamlined so that farmers can apply easily and should take no more than 45 minutes to complete, without the need for professional help.
Mark Tufnell, president of the Country Land and Business Association, which represents some 28,000 farmers, landowners and rural business owners, said: “This is a critical time for a sector that has stoically tolerated years of turmoil and uncertainty. These payment standards and rates are broadly in line with expectations and will encourage many farmers to take advantage of the new agricultural schemes. But this is nothing new to moorlanders or hill farmers struggling to make a living.”
He added: “The move towards payment for environmental supplies is welcome – it will benefit the planet, society and, over time, farmers. It puts England as a world leader in greener farming. But this major shift in agricultural policy comes at a time of rampant inflation, poor labor supply and constant extreme weather events. The stakes for farmers cannot be higher and the UK Government has a duty to make these schemes available to all types of farms, thus giving industry the confidence we need to make these schemes work.”
Previous improvements to the payment system, announced earlier this month, were widely criticized as too little, with farmers slow to take measures. The Guardian revealed that only 224 farmers received payments last year.
Sustainable agriculture experts said the schemes had not gone far enough to make the changes needed to save Britain’s natural environment, which had been degraded after decades of intensive farming and a lack of focus on nature conservation.
Last week, the watchdog, the Environment Agency, criticized the government for failing to comply with almost every environmental measure. Martin Lines, chairman of the Nature Friendly Farming Network, said Thursday’s announcement was positive but didn’t go far enough. “Single actions alone will not achieve our climate and nature goals,” he said. “There is still a need to combine efforts to avoid a piecemeal approach.”
Gareth Morgan, head of agricultural policy at the Soil Association, added: “The government is failing to explain how it will give farmers the confidence to invest in the radical changes needed to make agroecological farming resilient and sustainable. We face a climate emergency and an ecological collapse – there are welcome elements in today’s announcement, but we need to stop tinkering with the edges.”