Farmers and landowners will be paid to deliver “fundamental” changes to landscapes as part of the post-Brexit agricultural system, Environment Secretary George Eustice has said.
The new regime for England includes a more ambitious programme to support local nature on farms and “landscape recovery” funding for large-scale projects which could include rewilding, as well as payments for farmers to farm more sustainably.
Environmental groups have welcomed the commitment to ambitious environmental land management and “radical” landscape-scale change to address the climate and nature crises, but raised concerns over a lack of clarity about how they would work.
The National Farmers’ Union also criticised a lack of detail in the new schemes and warned they could lead to reduced food production in the UK.
Speaking at the online Oxford Farming Conference, Mr Eustice said the “local nature recovery” scheme would pay farmers to make space for nature, by planting trees, making ponds and creating wildflower meadows on unproductive parts of their land.
It is aimed to be a more ambitious replacement for the existing countryside stewardship scheme, which is also seeing a 30% increase in the value of payments to encourage more take-up as a bridge to the new regime.
The landscape recovery element was “about much more fundamental land use change”, Mr Eustice said.
Under the scheme, land managers can bid to receive funding for large-scale, long-term projects for establishing woodlands, restoring peatlands, wetlands and other habitats and creating new nature reserves.
In the first wave, up to 15 pilot projects, which could include rewilding schemes that help re-establish natural processes in the landscape, will focus on restoring England’s rivers and streams and helping threatened native species recover.
Successful bids, which will cover landscapes of between 500 and 5,000 hectares (1,200 to 12,000 acres), will be chosen by a team of experts over the summer.
Mr Eustice said that the “radical rewilding experiment” at the Knepp Estate in Sussex showed that “sometimes if you let go of the reins and allow nature to re-establish itself, and have a nature-led recovery of habitats, you can see some quite significant changes in a relatively short time”.
He told delegates: “These types of projects we envisage under landscape recovery won’t be right for every farm business or every farm holder, and indeed they probably won’t be right for most farm businesses.
“It will enable us to support a choice that some landowners may want to take, but we won’t be requiring anybody to enter these schemes.”
He told the conference: “It’s important that we recognise the truth around land use.
“If we’re to deliver the targets we’ve set ourselves for woodland creation in England – around 10,000 hectares of trees per year – and deliver our objective of getting 300,000 hectares of land where habitat is restored, there is inevitably going to be some degree of land use change.”
But he said it would only be a small proportion of the 9.3 million hectares of farmland in England.
And seeking to answer concerns about a drop in food production, he said there was not a direct correlation between productivity and the amount of land farmed, and the Government would be keeping a close eye on food security.
The three strands of the new programme – being phased in over seven years – were expected to each receive roughly a third share of the annual Government spending on English farm and land management payments by 2028, which is currently around £2.4 billion.
The Government said the schemes would help halt the decline in species, restore up to 300,000 hectares of habitat by 2042 and generate carbon savings of six million tonnes a year by the mid-2030s.
Beccy Speight, chief executive of RSPB, said: “We need ambitious and radical schemes that reward farmers for taking the necessary action to tackle the nature and climate crises.
“On this, we are in complete agreement with the Government.
“However, once again the welcome rhetoric isn’t being matched by the urgency and action that the situation demands, and a lack of detail on how these schemes will work in practice is still a cause for concern for both us and farmers.”
NFU vice president Tom Bradshaw said sustainable food production and environmental delivery must go hand-in-hand.
“While it is encouraging that sustainable food production is recognised, there is still a lack of detail on how it fits in with the schemes’ ambitions to improve farm biodiversity, restore peatlands and manage woodlands.
“This lack of detail is preventing farmers from making crucial long-term decisions that are essential to them running viable and profitable businesses.”
And he warned: “At a time when public support for British food and farming is at a high, our biggest concern is that these schemes result in reduced food production in the UK, leading to the need to import more food from countries with production standards that would be illegal for our farmers here.
“This simply off-shores our production and any environmental impacts that go with it and would be morally reprehensible.”