Farmers who abandon agri-environment schemes and return their land to food production should be unable to apply for cash under any future agricultural policy, MPs have been told.
Dr Simon Pryor, natural environment director at The National Trust, made the remarks when giving evidence to Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee before Easter.
Dr Pryor’s call followed a warning last year from the Trust’s former director general, Helen Ghosh, that the countryside faced a ‘decade of damage’ as farmers were beginning to ‘plough up pasture’ as a result of uncertainty over future funding.
At the time, then vice president of the NFU Guy Smith told Farmers Guardian it was not clear what people were doing with their former stewardship features, though three-quarters of the people coming out of Entry Level Stewardship and Higher Level Stewardship were not going into the new Countryside Stewardship scheme because it was too bureaucratic.
Dr Pryor said: “One of the things we are really concerned about in the short term is farmers facing uncertainty about future funding and switching to a high-input, market-led agriculture.
“We have already seen areas of habitat which were publicly funded, created over the last 10 or 20 years, being ploughed up and destroyed by farmers who have said, ‘I do not have any faith in this, I am going to pursue a market-intensive agriculture’.
“It would be a very simple move for the Government to make to say, ‘You will not be eligible for any future funding under this new regime if you have in the last few years destroyed stuff you have been paid public money to create.’
“It would be a quick act to do and it would stop all this worrying concern, or we could end up with a lot of natural capital being lost over the next two or three years while we are inventing the new scheme and transitioning to it.”
Since Defra Secretary Michael Gove took up his post, the Rural Payments Agency and Natural England have been tasked with simplifying the Countryside Stewardship scheme to save farmers time and cut down on paperwork.