With direct payments on their way out, farmers should consider rewilding on marginal land to boost the income they make from food production, says Dr Stephanie Wray, director of RSK Wilding.
The Government’s announcement last week regarding the Agricultural Transition will have left many English farmers concerned about how they will replace subsidies, which for many farm businesses make the difference between survival and going under.
The Environmental Land Management (ELM) scheme will certainly evolve as pilot projects progress over the next couple of years, but we can be in no doubt that the Government is determined to implement a system of ‘public money for public goods.’
The new scheme will help to deliver other Government commitments made in the 25-Year Environment Plan such as biodiversity net gain and the nature recovery network, as well as contributing to nature-based solutions to climate change and strategies to protect peatland.
ELM will also play a role in supporting the Government’s ‘30by30’ target, to protect 30 per cent of England’s land for biodiversity by 2030, through habitat creation and restoration, or securing long-term management and protection for wildlife-rich habitats.
One approach to delivering these outcomes is rewilding.
For many people, rewilding conjures up images of reintroducing apex predators like wolves or lynx, but the reality is much less dramatic in the vast majority of cases.
The point of rewilding is to let nature take control; to take our collective hands off the tiller and let natural processes take over.
That too might sound terrifying to many who have invested their lives into taming the land and making it productive.
But rewilding isn’t to be targeted at our best and most productive land. Growing safe, healthy food is the most valuable purpose for that land.
Rewilding is an approach suitable for marginal land.
Many farmers have parts of their land that they drill each year, more out of habit than the expectation of a serious return and, as we start to see the effects of climate change, those returns are only getting more remote.
By its very nature rewilding works best at scale, but that doesn’t mean giving up your entire holding.
Great results can be achieved by linking up with neighbours across a wide area, to make landscape scale benefits for the environment, but with each farmer just setting aside the marginal land they can afford to take out of production.
And then, in its purest form, we just stop interfering and let nature take its course.
In other cases, it may be helpful to start some initial tree planting, dig ponds, or sow some wildflower seeds.
If species are introduced in rewilding schemes, they are likely to be rare butterflies, dormice or farmland birds, rather than wolves.
The aim, though, is not to manage intensively but to make sure that natural processes, like soil formation, nutrient cycling and colonisation by species, can take place at their own pace.
This may all sound like a pipe dream, and it’s fair to question where the money will come from to deliver this utopian vision of the countryside.
ELM is certainly one route, and large-scale rewilding projects will tick a lot of ELM boxes.
But other opportunities exist to make commercial deals.
Many large companies will need to offset their carbon and there is demand for more UK-based carbon offset schemes.
These can be based on woodland planting, peatland restoration and rewilding.
The Environment Bill, which has travelled through Parliament in close association with the Agriculture Act, places requirements on developers to deliver biodiversity net gain.
This is a form of development that leaves nature in a better state than before.
It can be difficult to deliver on a constrained development site and increasingly land will be needed to form ‘biodiversity offsets’, oases for nature intended to balance the land we use for building.
To deliver this type of outcome doesn’t need huge acreages either, as small stepping-stones of habitat are also helpful in helping keep wildlife populations connected.
Other schemes being promoted in England are designed to support protected species, such as the District Level Licensing Scheme for great crested newts, where farmers can receive payments for building ponds on their land, Payments for Ecosystems Services, for example by managing land to provide natural flood protection, and the newly-proposed species conservation strategies, which should start to come into effect next year.
While the times are uncertain for all of us, there is an increasing range of options available to help farmers diversify and earn an income for all the benefits they deliver to society, not just food production.
Many farms might benefit from a little more wildness, and it may be worth exploring what options are most suitable at an early stage.