Towards a Green and Pleasant Land? By Charles Sayer

Subsidies being paid to farmers are undergoing a complete change. The old payment system
is gradually being phased and will end in 2024. Land will no longer be eligible for a payment
just because it is in agriculture: the new system promises ‘public money for public goods’.
Here are a few pointers as to what the landscape might start to look like.
Background:
Farming is important for wildlife because in the UK about 12% of land is built on, 12% is in
Forestry, and 75% is under agriculture which leaves 1% as water. Of that 75% in Agriculture,
23% is arable, 24% ‘improved’ [mainly lowland] pasture and 28% upland rough grazing.
Nature reserves are just 2%, so the importance of agriculture to biodiversity is pretty obvious.
Since WW2 the Common Agricultural Policy, and before that various Agriculture Acts, have
driven landowners and farmers towards a production-based system of providing cheap food.
This has been carried out very successfully but with severe consequences for wildlife.
The Future Scheme:
Payments to land managers will be based around stewardship of the countryside. Detail is a
bit sketchy at the moment but there will almost certainly be 3 tiers.

Tier 1: Sustainable Farming Incentive Scheme
This will be targeting the quality of Air, Soil and Water and animal welfare: it will be aimed at
all farmers and landowners.
What might you see?
There will be more over-winter cover crops. These reduce soil erosion and leeching of
chemicals and fertilizer into river catchments. The R. Wensum is in a dreadful state for 3 main
reasons: run-off from roads which contain lots of nasty micro-particles: Anglian Water sewage
treatment works: and agricultural run-off, which contains nutrients and chemicals. At least the
agricultural elements will be addressed.
More field margins will be left uncropped. This will protect hedges and increase botanical
interest.
Soil quality should improve which should help invertebrates in the soil. That will help birds.
There could be encouragement to reduce stocking rates on hill ground. Hopefully this will start
to mitigate against flooding and improve pasture diversity.
It seems likely that nearly all farmers and landowners will take up these options to some
extent.

Tier 2: Local Nature Recovery Scheme
This will be targeted at the more environmentally minded who are prepared to give up land to
nature in return for a payment. There is a recognition that the environmentally keenest 10% of
land managers deliver 85% of the total environmental gain.
It is likely that most up-take will be on poorer soils.
What might you see?
More bird food strips to help seed eating birds through the winter.
Pollen and nectar margins for invertebrates and pollinators.
Creation of new wood pasture – controlled rewilding. Rewilding is much in the eye-line but will
only be taken up if there is sufficient payment to compensate for land becoming derelict. The
asset value will very likely fall so landowners will think very hard before going for this. The
idea that much of the countryside will be suddenly be rewilded is unrealistic, as it simply will
not put the tiles on the roof, unless payments are attractive. However, there will be a place for
rewilding. Tony Juniper, the new Natural England boss, is pushing this and it will appeal to
those with the poorest soils.
Woodland creation. There will be incentives to plant woods to help meet the government
targets. The current 12% woodland cover has to be dramatically increased to around 18%.
Where the trees are planted will affect bird populations. Considerable planting on pasture
seems highly likely – especially in the uplands: but pasture is already a carbon sink, so the
gains per hectare for becoming carbon neutral are less. But planting an arable land
[maximum gain for carbon sequestration targets] reduces the available area for farmland
birds. There would appear to be losers as well as winners in large scale woodland creation.
Agri forestry. You might well ask what Agri-forestry is and this is my best shot at an answer. It
seems to be 2 things going on upon the same piece of land. Think of cork forest in Iberia
which is also grazed. Orchards with livestock, parkland, grazed nut groves, hedgerow trees
etc. It may not be financially life changing for land owners, but with a realistic payment could
make a real difference to biodiversity. It fits in with rewilding and leads towards a more gentle
landscape – more akin to what it used to be. It will also help with carbon sequestration.

Tier 3: Landscape Recovery Scheme
This looks like landscape scale schemes on a much bigger scale than single farms could
deliver. It requires a collaborative approach e.g. the entire Wensum valley, North Norfolk
Coast or Broadland.
By virtue of the sheer scale, this could deliver big environmental gains. For example, there is
a proposed Turtle Dove scheme in the Wensum valley. To succeed it will require lots of
farmers to take part so that the needs of the Turtle dove are catered for e.g. weedy foraging
blocks, straggly hedges and farm ponds all the way up the valley. One farm alone cannot
make this work, but with a combined effort it could come off. It will need quite an imaginative
and aggressive input to pull it all together. [ It also needs some Turtle doves.]
What else is likely to happen?
Productivity grants: These seem a very sensible idea – giving encouragement to the most goahead entrepreneurial farmers. This could be items such as reservoirs for irrigation. With summer droughts and winter monsoons it is logical to store excess winter rain water and not deplete the aquifers in the summer.
There could be encouragement for livestock handling systems, genetic improvements and so
on.
More farmers will diversify. If the diversification works, it will very likely take over from the
core business, with the land then becoming farmed by someone else. But the result of all the above is that there will be fewer growers – some estimates are up to 30% will either leave the industry or go bankrupt. That will mean larger agri-businesses. [ However, don’t forget that the reduction in the numbers of working farms has been going on
for some time.]

And Finally:
One of the issues to be resolved by government is the ‘land sparing’ versus ‘land sharing’
debate. How would the proposed structure of schemes fit into these alternatives? i.e. do you
go for maximum output when growing a crop, use as many inputs as is viable, with all the new
chemistry, making use of the best soils and in return give up land for environmental benefit?
[= land-sparing] Or try to grow entirely on a ‘sharing with wildlife’ basis – more of an organic
approach.  Personally, I am in the ‘land sparing’ camp because it is more economic to grow wheat on
good soils than poor soils – more output for less input and a far better carbon footprint. There
is also the question of whether ‘land sharing’ can produce enough food. However, by no
means everyone will agree with this and the conclusions [if there are any] will help set the
direction of travel for the future. And helping to drive all this the government needs to consider how much of our own food we
produce. [currently 65%]
Let’s hope that this all has a positive effect on the countryside which we love: that species
declines can be reversed and good, healthy food can be profitably produced.

Well done if you got to here!

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