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Setting the new environmental land management scheme in England up for success

Whilst Defra is in the process of designing the new environmental land management (ELM) scheme, we consider what lessons can be learned from past schemes. This is the first in a series of blogs setting out our shared views on the scheme’s objectives, design, and content to inform Defra’s thinking.

June 2020

Nature is in trouble

A series of reports including the State of Nature and Intergovernmental Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) published over the last few years have shone a light on the urgent crisis facing our natural environment. Overall, agriculture is now the most significant source of water pollution and of ammonia emissions and the greatest driver of biodiversity loss in England. It also accounts for 10% of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions, and estimates suggest that soil is being lost at 10 times the rate it is being created. Access to nature is also far from equal across the country, exacerbating the disconnect between society and the environment and preventing people from experiencing the wide range of benefits of getting outdoors. The status quo is not an option.

Over the last 30 years, agri-environment schemes have provided a vital source of funding to support nature-friendly farming and forestry. However, these schemes have always been a bit of a bolt on rather than a central aspect of farming or land management policy. So, whilst these schemes have delivered some notable successes, they haven’t transformed the way we farm and manage the land in the way that is urgently needed.

However, farmers are well placed to drive nature’s recovery

Defra now has an opportunity with ELM to develop a world leading scheme that is far more ambitious than previous agri environment schemes to transform the way we manage land and ensure the natural environment, sits at the heart of every farm or forestry business. Getting ELM right is not just vital to achieve conservation goals but also to restore the natural processes upon which the production of healthy food, timber, and other goods relies.

Lessons learned

But whilst we need a step change, there are lessons we can and should learn from past agri-environment and woodland grant schemes to help shape a new, expanded, more ambitious and more radical ELM…

It needs to be evidence-based - In England, an effort was made from the start to base agri-environment schemes on the best available evidence; to commission research to develop and test management interventions; to find ways of making them more effective; and to run programmes of monitoring and evaluation to learn lessons from scheme delivery. ELM needs to maintain this evidence-based tradition. Defra needs to make the most of tests and trial, the national pilot and research and development to build something that is practical, effective and deliverable.

Delivery at scale – Key successes have happened when actions have been driven at a landscape scale. For example, the recovery of cirl buntings across south Devon. But as Professor Lawton said in 2010, we need more, bigger, better-managed and joined areas for nature, and better management of land in general. ELM can and should make a significant contribution to the creation of a national Nature Recovery Network – a mosaic of high-quality habitat across the country that gives species the space to recover. An effective targeting framework is key to landscape scale delivery and effective Nature Recovery Network, helping to maximise environmental outcomes and manage trade-offs.

Focus on defined and measurable environmental outcomes – Agri-environment agreements with a clear focus are generally more successful. For ELM, a holding-level audit could help identify key assets, risks, and opportunities to support the selection of appropriate outcomes and management interventions. Combined with an effective targeting regime this approach can ensure the “the right outcomes in the right place, delivered in the right way’. This could even help identify areas were rewilding rather than active management is desirable.

Keep it flexible - A major criticism of past agri-environment schemes is that they have been overly prescriptive – that is, they specify exactly what a land manager must do, rather than providing them flexibility to tailor management according to their own context. Getting the level of flexibility right for ELM will boost environmental efficacy and enable farmers to incorporate environmental management within their business.

There is a creative tension between effectiveness and simplicity - Everyone wants schemes and agreements to be simple. However, overly simple schemes have often failed to deliver the desired environmental outcomes, as was the experience with Entry Level Stewardship. Sometimes complex agreements and management are required, nonetheless an adviser can play a crucial role in navigating a scheme and ensuring it is simple for the land manager to deliver. Moving away from the Common Agricultural Policy Defra can take a more proportionate approach to scheme administration, control and verification.

Strong engagement and participation should not be overlooked – ultimately, farmers and land managers determine whether an agreement delivers its target outcomes. Problems have occurred when land managers have not been engaged in testing and piloting schemes, for example Countryside Stewardship. Defra must involve farmers and land managers in the design process and testing to ensure the scheme is operable.

Use different tiers to boost accessibility - Different tiers have become a core aspect of ELM scheme design, helping to boost accessibility without compromising ambition. Whilst tiers are crucial, it is important to avoid rigid separation. This flexibility permits the incremental adoption of measures overtime.

Integrated land management is essential – to date agriculture and forestry have been treated separately, reducing the opportunities for integrated land management. ELM provides an opportunity to ensure integrated land management to maximise the delivery of public goods and supporting a transition to more sustainable practices. For example, supporting agroforesty can deliver both public goods (carbon storage, biodiversity) and private goods (improved soil fertility, business diversification, shade and shelter for livestock).

Expert and trusted advice is a must – Numerous studies and evaluations have determined that expert and trusted advice and training are vital to the success of ELM schemes, helping to integrate environmental delivery into a farm or land management business, and improving the quality of environmental delivery.

Getting IT and administration right is crucial – Countryside Stewardship has shown that poor IT systems and inefficient or overly bureaucratic administration can cripple a scheme, leading to delayed payments, slow processing of paperwork and heavy-handed inspections. If these mistakes are repeated, ELM will fall at the first hurdle.

So, what does this mean for Defra’s three tier design?

These key lessons should provide the foundations upon which Defra constructs an ambitious and effective scheme capable of transforming the farming and land management sector for the better.

Over the coming months we will set out further thoughts on key aspects such as scheme objectives, and the design and content of each tier. Our vision is for an ELM scheme supports farmers and land managers to make a significant contribution to help tackle the nature and climate emergency and open up the countryside so that more people can access it, whilst producing healthy, sustainable food.

Alice Groom, Senior Policy Officer, RSPB

Follow @AliceGroom2 and @Natures_Voice

The opinions expressed in this blog are the author's and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.