Thérèse Coffey, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, has set out plans for the nation’s farming sector, with the aim of supporting farmers to be profitable and resilient as they produce food sustainably, protect nature and enhance the environment.
Plans include an accelerated roll-out of the Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) – a key part of the Environmental Land Management schemes (ELMs) – which provide a diverse range of paid actions to manage hedgerows for wildlife, establish nectar-rich wildflowers and to manage crop pests without insecticides.
According to Defra, these incentives will make food production more resilient and efficient in the long term, while also contributing to the UK’s environmental goals on carbon, biodiversity, water quality and net zero.
Ms Coffey said: “Farmers are at the heart of our economy – producing the food on our tables as well as being the custodians of the land it comes from.
“These two roles go hand-in-hand and we are speeding up the roll out of our farming schemes so that everyone can be financially supported as they protect the planet while producing food more sustainably.”
Environmental Land Management
The plans include six additional standards within the SFI system. This means that farmers can receive payment for actions on hedgerows, grassland, crop growing land, pest management and nutrient management. These build on the three existing standards to improve soil health and moorlands, which were introduced last year and have already been adopted by nearly 1,900 farmers.
Enhancements to the Countryside Stewardship scheme have seen around 30 additional actions added, available to farmers by the end of 2024. It builds on more than 250 actions that farmers can take at present and Defra reports a 94% increase in uptake since 2020. The next round of Countryside Stewardship Higher-Tier will open in February, with Mid-Tier following in March.
Countryside Stewardship Plus will reward coordinated action, with farmers working together to support climate and nature aims. It has the same environmental ambition previously planned for the Local Nature Recovery scheme, including managing floodplain meadows to reduce the flood risk and improve biodiversity, restoring and maintaining peatland and enhancing and managing woodland.
The scheme is also set to be improved so that farmers can benefit from greater flexibility over when they can apply and how they manage agreements, with improved access for tenant farmers and increased access to Higher Tier options.
Following high demand, applications for the second round of the Landscape Recovery scheme will be opened in the spring to support large-scale nature recovery projects. These could include creating and enhancing woodland, peatland, nature reserves and protected sites.
Applications involve groups of land managers and tenant farmers, working together to deliver environmental benefits across farmed and rural landscapes. A total of 22 projects began last year with the aim of restoring almost 700km of rivers and protecting 263 species.
The SFI has been made as straightforward as possible, according to Defra, with applications done online. Further improvements have been made for the 2023 offer, based on learnings from pilots and feedback to make it simpler, clearer and more workable.
Over time, the process will continue to evolve so that it supports and incentivises farmers to deliver the right combination of actions at the right scale.
Harry Baker Cresswell, an agent working with two arable farmers from Northumberland, said: “I work with two holdings which are part of the SFI pilot, neither of which were in existing schemes.
“The application and payment experiences have been good to date, and the objectives of SFI for arable land have been clearly set out.
“SFI is different to previous Environmental Stewardships models in that the option requirements are much less prescriptive. This is welcome but does require a little steering to ensure objectives are met – something that Defra has recognised with its SFI Management Payment.
“This is a real step forward in the journey towards enthusing widespread participation in the ELM schemes.”
Kitty Hamilton, a mixed farmer from East Lincolnshire, said: “The big positive of the SFI pilot is the flexibility, which we really like. We were able to retain habitats from previous schemes which we were really proud of. The pilot fits well with our current and planned farming methods, which means it’s gently nudging us towards a more regenerative system.
“The fact that we can layer the standards, and use all of the land on the estate, means that we can generate a good income. Generally, I’ve enjoyed engaging with the learning activities, helping us to upskill professionally and personally within our organisation.”
Robin Milton, a livestock farmer from Exmoor, said: “We’ve been on three standards to give the SFI pilot a trial run because we felt it would benefit our business.
“The application process was straightforward and, although the guidance was lengthy, I learned quite a bit and we ended up doing more than we needed to – which isn’t a bad thing.”
Defra states that it can now offer something for every type of farmer. For tenants, there are actions relevant to their holding, especially through SFI. Shorter three-year agreements have been introduced without no landlord consent required and there are no penalties if a farmer leaves the scheme early.
Upland farmers can be paid for actions on moorland, grassland and upland peat with over 100 options across all schemes. Also from this year, farmers with existing Higher Level Stewardship agreements will be able to expand their activities.
Responding to Defra’s latest announcement of further changes to ELMs, NFU vice president David Exwood said: “It’s encouraging that Defra has provided us with more detail on the future of the ELM programme and brought forward a broader, more flexible offer for the SFI.
“Information on the six new standards for SFI 2023, payments rates, as well as the evolving Countryside Stewardship scheme, is incredibly useful and provides some of the clarity we have been asking for.
“For farmers and growers making crucial long-term decisions that are essential to running viable and profitable food-producing businesses, it’s vital they have the full scheme details as soon as possible and know how the different schemes will work together. A speedy application and payment process will also be key to giving farm businesses some much-needed security.
“If ELMs is to be successful, we’ve always said that it needs to be simple, provide certainty and fairly reward farmers for taking part. This means schemes being developed that are inclusive and available to every farm business – whether upland or lowland, tenant or owner-occupied.
“British farmers are committed to delivering net zero agriculture by 2040, and the NFU remains committed to working with Defra to improve its ELM offer. It’s in all our interests to ensure sustainably, climate-friendly British farming in the future, with farmers producing food alongside their work in maintaining and protecting the environment.”