Defra has unveiled more details of the New Environmental Land Management Scheme (NELMS) which will replace Environmental Stewardship (ES) from 2016.
It will be a very different scheme. Gone is the ‘broad and shallow principle’ which currently ensures most farmers have access to Entry Level Stewardship (ELS). Instead, NELMS will focus on carefully selected sites and areas, aiming to deliver local environmental priorities.
Defra acknowledges resources will be ‘constrained’. The agri-environment budget over the next six years is £3.1 billion, similar to the current period, but £2.2bn of this is committed to completing existing ELS and HLS agreements, leaving less than £1bn for NELMS.
Currently, 70 per cent of England’s farmland is covered by agri-environment schemes. Under the new approach this is likely to fall to 35-40 per cent of agricultural area by 2020.
The funding will be inaccessible to many farmers beyond ‘universal grants’ of up to £5,000.
Defra has identified the overall priority for NELMS is to promote biodiversity. It will also cover soil and water issues, the historic environment, landscape, genetic conservation and educational access, plus measures to address climate change such as reducing greenhouse gas emissions and carbon storage.
NELMS will include ‘baseline’ measures which sit above cross compliance and greening, which all NELMS applicants will need to comply with, without payment. Proposals include a farm environment record with a requirement to retain certain features over the agreement, protecting historic features and hedge/boundary management.
Focusing on designated sites, such as Sites of Special Scientific Interest, this will be similar to the current HLS scheme. Agreements will be by invitation only. Many HLS agreement holders will be able to transfer agreements to NELMS, although this will not be automatic with selection reflecting past performance and local scheme priorities. Advice would be provided by Natural England in a similar way to HLS.
This will be limited to target areas identified by Defra and Natural England, which want to get the ‘right agreements in the right places with the right options in the right combination’.
For example, if an area is home to rare farmland birds, farmers will be reimbursed for enhancing this habitat. If agricultural pollution has affected local rivers, farmers in that area might be able to apply for funding to reduce soil erosion and run-off from their fields.
A key element of the mid-tier scheme is groups of coordinated agreements will be encouraged through scoring /selection criteria used, although it will not be compulsory to be part of a group.
The scheme will be competitive. A new scoring system is being developed for the upper and-mid-tiers.
Natural England will not be providing any advice or support to mid-tier applicants. Advice will be on line or from third parties.
These will be available as a two-year capital works plan in the upper and mid-tier offers, alongside their scheme options. Capital works would be recognised in the scoring system.
While large parts of the country will be unable to access NELMS agreements, grants will be available nationwide.
There will be a limited range of options which the land manager can deliver without additional support other than digital guidance, according to an NFU briefing. The types of options included would be hedge laying, stone wall restoration and bat boxes. It will have a simple rapid application process.
This will be a competitive scheme with Defra currently envisaging limiting grants to a minimum of £1,000 and maximum of £5,000.
A ‘targeting framework’ is currently being developed using data from a range of sources to identify the areas which best fit the schemes’ priorities. While the areas have not been finalised, it is likely upland areas, for example, are more likely to included than parts of the arable east.
There will be a single menu of multi-annual options and capital items. The draft list consists of 138 options and 137 capital items, which are currently being assessed by RPA and Defra, according to the NFU.
ELS and HLS agreements will continue to their full term, although there may be changes to payment rates to account for double funding where options are similar to Ecological Focus Areas (EFA).
Andrew Clark, NFU head of policy services, said: “It is clear that ELS ‘broad and shallow’ agreement will not be a feature of the future regime but the legacy of that Scheme should not be lost.
“The NFU does not agree the next scheme should be dominated by biodiversity outcomes. Instead the new scheme should incentivise soil and water measures as a fundamental step to biodiversity outcomes.”
He questioned whether sufficient funds would be allocated to the capital and wider countryside tiers of the scheme, which he said should receive a ‘high priority’.
“We believe the best way to maintain the legacy delivered by farmers in ELS and UELS would be to ensure that the wider countryside and capital grants elements receive a high priority when budgets are allocated to achieve widespread benefits.”
He also urged Defra to continue with the ‘successful’ Catchment Sensitive Farming approach, which is under review.