Hopes have been raised that a culture shift is underway at Defra and Natural England following an announcement that the Government will fully fund a revolutionary agri-environment scheme based on the ‘Payment By Results’ (PBR) principle.
Under the terms of the PBR project, which is taking place in Wensleydale and Norfolk/Suffolk, farmers are free to manage their land as they see fit in order to achieve positive environmental outcomes.
Peter Thompson, a biodiversity adviser for the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT), has advised farmers taking part in the Norfolk/Suffolk pilot, which provides feed for farmland birds over winter and flower-rich foraging habitat for pollinators.
He told Farmers Guardian Natural England (NE) and Defra had ‘begun to listen to farmers’.
“They have realised by working alongside farmers they are going to get an awful lot better results than if they sit in offices in London and dictate what they want,” he said.
“This is a very useful pilot scheme. They are learning a lot.”
Though the project is not without its problems – as things stand, farmers would get paid nothing for a failed flower crop, even if they had spent money establishing it – Mr Thompson was confident any kinks would be ironed out.
“NE are listening, they really are,” he said.
“I am quite confident the zero payment will slowly disappear.”
But other farmers dealing with NE were less optimistic and warned equal attention must be given to delivery of existing agri-environment schemes.
Tom Lorains, chairman of Derwent Commons Association, has 18 months left to run on his Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) agreement and is struggling with cash flow due to late payments.
Under the terms of the agreement, he has taken steps to preserve ancient oak woodland and accepted a 50 per cent stocking reduction.
He said: “NE seem to be able to get away with paying as and when they feel like it. We do not have assets to sell because we have cut our stocking by 50 per cent.
“They should have different teams working with existing agreement holders and not just push them to one side.
“The majority of the country is in existing agreements; you cannot let all those collapse because of Brexit.”
Mr Lorains’ confidence in the Defra family has sunk to such a low, he has given up running workshops to educate officials on the day-to-day realities of running a fell farm, saying it was like ‘banging his head against a brick wall’.
A Defra spokesman said: “We are working to simplify Countryside Stewardship as far as possible within the current EU framework.
“We know how important these payments are to farmers and are focused on getting money into bank accounts as quickly as possible.
“97 per cent of eligible 2017 CS agreement holders who claimed in 2017 for their revenue payment received some form of payment by the end of June 2018.
“As we leave the EU we want to change the way we think about rewarding farmers for their work in delivering public goods for the environment that we all enjoy.
“The Payment by Results pilot is an excellent example of a more flexible and innovative approach.”