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Opinion: Will Defra's plans really do the right thing for the environment?

Brexit is a once in a generation opportunity to design farm policies which support a British countryside far richer in wildlife than it is after half a century of the Common Agricultural Policy.

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But will Defra’s proposals do that?

The phasing out of area payments and the reallocation of most of this cash to environmental land management (ELM) is badly needed and should usher in huge improvements for wildlife.

But will ELM get the bulk of the £3 billion a year farmers in England get now as area payments? Or will some get siphoned off to the NHS or elsewhere? Does Defra intend scrapping the so-called greening payments – largely useless for wildlife – and adding that into ELM too?

We need more clarity on budgets.

Removing area payments from hill farms runs the risk that a fall in land prices could see hill farmers selling out to large scale sheep ranchers who have no interest in wildlife or in farm landscapes.

I would retain the payments in the uplands, cap them at a sensible level, and add on ELM for public goods including better habitat provision and lighter grazing to hold back heavy rain downwash on steep slopes.

Researching my book, I met lots of farmers to see how they balanced food production with wildlife. Many were already in ELM-like schemes.

I concluded ELM should be mandatory for all farms, not a suggestion likely to be popular with farmers or our four agriculture departments.

But unless they are, we will end up with a pepper-pot effect where one farm can be in ELM surrounded by farms which are not, much like the current stewardship schemes in some parts of the country.

That is not good for wildlife. Species increasingly need to move if much of our wildlife is going to cope with climate warming.


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There are positive signals. Current schemes are too rigid, but Defra says ELM will be flexible.

And I welcome the proposal that ELM plans for each farm will be drawn up by contractors and the farmer in partnership.

But organic produce needs more support – organic farming is proven to be better for wildlife – and we need a review of GM to see how modified crops might need less fertiliser and fewer wildlife-damaging pesticides.

Brexit needs to re-establish faded farming ethic – land husbandry, not land exploitation.

We will rarely get an opportunity like this to put the wildlife back into our farmed countryside, to support a farming industry producing quality food, but a countryside alive once again with ascending songs of skylarks, the haunting call of curlews and that air-filled buzz of a myriad of insects.

* Malcolm Smith is the author of Ploughing a New Furrow: A Blueprint for Wildlife Friendly Farming

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