Farm and environmental groups have raised a series of concerns over the Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) scheme pilot, after Defra published details of the scheme this week.
The department has announced it will open expressions of interest for the pilot from Monday, 15 March.
The SFI will pay farmers to take actions which deliver desired environmental outcomes, such as boosting levels of organic matter in soils or planting hedgerows to provide year-round food, shelter and breeding cover for birds and insects.
In the first phase of the pilot, participants will be able to select from an initial set of eight standards to build their own agreements, but they will not be able to enter fields with an existing agri-environment agreement on them.
Within each standard there are three levels for participants to choose from: Introductory, Intermediate and Advanced, but all fields must be entered at the same level for each standard – a move which has been described as a ‘major disincentive’ by Dr Julia Aglionby, chairwoman of the Uplands Alliance and executive director of the Foundation for Common Land.
Payment rates will be broadly equivalent to Countryside Stewardship (see box below), with a plan to update in 2022, and common land is excluded from the pilot.
Dr Aglionby told Farmers Guardian she was disappointed that a full list of actions to be paid for will not be published until June, and that farmers expressing an interest in joining the pilot would not know how much they would be paid for 15 hours of engagement every month.
“The acid test is will farmers be excited and engaged by the offer to enhance their delivery of public goods, or will they conclude they are better off keeping their freedom and ‘going farming’,” she said.
Chris Price, chief executive of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust, echoed these comments, saying farmers would struggle to plan ahead with the information made available by Defra.
He said: “The way the standards will operate is you will be able to stack them up. Any particular farmer will presumably be able to opt for several standards on their farm, so until you know the full range of standards which will be available, it is quite difficult to know how it will apply to your business.
“The easier, more straight forward thing to do is to go down the route of maximising production and intensification, which is the antithesis of what Defra is trying to achieve.
“They now need to move much more quickly than they have to date with rolling out the rest of the standards.”
Dr Richard Benwell, chief executive of Wildlife and Countryside Link, pointed out some options under consideration in the pilot were already regulatory requirements, and suggested they may not achieve real environmental improvement.
“They could gobble up vital funds needed to support more environmentally ambitious farming and land management businesses,” he said.
Other concerns have been raised about a change in language, with Defra now referring to the SFI as a scheme in its own right, as opposed to a component of ELMs.
The other two components – Local Nature Recovery and Landscape Recovery – are also being spoken of as individual schemes.
This has led to questions about how the three schemes will interact, what their separation means in terms of the offer for farmers and whether more than one scheme can be entered into at a time.
The RSPB has also demanded that Defra articulate a clear vision for ELM and what it means for the farming sector.
A spokesperson said: “Over the last couple of years it has felt as though Defra’s ambition for the scheme has been waning, but with the launch of the SFI pilot, Defra has the opportunity to reset the level of ambition and ensure ELM works for farmers while delivering significant public benefits.”
|Standard||Initial base rates (first phase of pilot only)|
|Arable and horticultural land standard||from £28 up to £74 per hectare|
|Arable and horticultural soils standard||from £30 up to £59 per hectare|
|Improved grassland standard||from £27 up to £97 per hectare|
|Improved grassland soils standard||from £6 up to £8 per hectare|
|Low and no input grassland standard||from £22 up to £110 per hectare|
|Hedgerow standard||from £16 up to £24 per 100 metres|
|On farm woodland standard||£49 per hectare|
|Waterbody buffering standard||from £16 up to £34 per 100 metres|