The inflexibility of current agri-environment schemes has prevented farmers from properly catering for wildlife, says Martin Lines, Cambridgeshire arable farmer. Government must not make the same mistakes post-Brexit.
Brexit presents farming with a challenge, but also a big opportunity. The Government will have the tough job of creating a new domestic Agriculture Bill which works for all farmers.
But this Bill is also a chance to make environmental land management schemes so much better, improving our chances of restoring nature in the countryside.
Agri-environment schemes have helped me transform my land at Papley Grove Farm into a haven for wildlife.
A survey by the RSPB identified a number of bird species I could help, so I decided to sign up for Entry-Level Stewardship (ELS) and Higher-Level Stewardship (HLS) schemes in 2001.
Since then, we have been able to put hedgerows back, improve water courses, add flower-rich margins, bird seed mixtures, and put up a number of nest boxes.
This is benefitting a number of Red Listed birds: we have seen skylark numbers rise and now turtle doves have started coming in.
As farming is an industry which receives public money, I think it is very important that the public should gain from it too. They need to be able to see what their money is being used for, or we may risk losing their support and the money going to the NHS or housing instead.
A lot of the money which comes to farming is seen to be attached to the food we produce, but a lot of our core costs are from managing the landscape: stone walls, hedgerows, ditches. Improving habitats has a cost.
If this type of farming is not profitable, where does the money come from to manage these areas the public wants?
Without the current ELS and HLS and Countryside Stewardship payments, I could not afford to devote such a large area of land to conservation, nor, I imagine, could many other farmers. As a business, it would be difficult to justify. So it is vital agri-environment schemes continue.
Having said that, the current schemes are not perfect. They are long-term plans with little flexibility: mine are for ten years, while my newer schemes last for five years.
This means if half-way through this period a new species arrives on your land, tree sparrows or turtle doves for example, you cannot easily adjust your management practice to cater for them.
The schemes need to be in a form all farmers can access: flexible, and not too specifically targeted.
A local, flexible plan also needs support from farm advisers. At the moment, we can talk to advisers from various organisations including conservation NGOs, seed companies and chemical manufacturers.
We are always going for this support and I am happy to contribute towards a local adviser who can help us deliver the best conservation package.
The Nature Friendly Farming Network (NFFN) that I am the UK chair of is a network run by farmers. We are a group of farmers who have come together to champion a way of farming which is sustainable and good for nature.
We come from a range of backgrounds – big and small, organic and conventional. We are passionate about ensuring our countryside is productive and bursting with wildlife.
The network is open to farmers and the public alike. We raise awareness of nature friendly farming, share insights and experience and work together for better policies for food and farming.
The NFFN is a great resource, providing a contact point for support as the changes to agri-environment schemes emerge.
You can join for free and find out more HERE.