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By Amy Cowdell

Nov 27th, 2019

The Environment Bill. The first results-based agri-environment scheme

Climate change and environmental management are at the forefront of people’s minds currently, with international movements like Extinction Rebellion increasing people’s awareness of the true reality of the state of the planet.

In my September article I discussed the Environment Bill summer policy statement. The Bill has now been introduced in Parliament and on the face of it would appear to be along the terms of the summary.  The Government boasts the Bill will “tackle the biggest environmental policies of our time, signaling a historic step change in the way we protect and enhance our precious natural environment.” However, inevitably the devil will be in the detail and we will see how Parliament scrutinises and adapts the Bill in the months to come.

Natural England recently published its final report on their pilot ‘Results Based Agri-Environment Payment Schemes’, which ran from 2016 to 2018. The pilot (part funded by the EU) was designed to test a possible mechanism for providing future agri-environmental schemes. Agri-environment schemes, such as the Countryside Stewardships, are often a welcome source of additional income stream for a farm. Whilst previous schemes provided payments for implementation of a rather fixed set of criteria, the annual payments in the results-based schemes are paid out in correlation to the success of the biodiversity achieved through the farmer’s efforts. With a much less prescriptive style approach, the pilot assessed whether farmers were more motivated to increase the biodiversity by the results-based rewards system.  The report analyses the cost-effectiveness of such a scheme and people’s attitude towards it.

I rather modest sample of 34 farmers participated with a total of 230 hectares of land between them. One was set in Wensleydale (meadow and grassland) and the other in Norfolk/Suffolk. The total expense of the farmers was £117,800 for the 2 year period. As farmers are rewarded through results and expected to carry out self-assessments throughout the contract period, training is crucial for this method. Farmers were provided with a range of guidance materials, one to one farm visits, farm walks and training events.

The report concluded that the results-based approach “has considerable potential to improve the performance of agri-environmental measures”. It also concludes that the cost to the farmer and the payments made will not significantly change. However, it recognises the limited nature of the pilot, from the numbers of participants, to the items to which the results were measured.  Many challenges are reported, such as increasing weather variability due to climate change and the amount of time it will take larger landowners to carry out their self-assessments. There is potential for conflict between high peak harvest season and the specific timings of assessing certain measures of biodiversity.

It will be interesting to see how the pilot will shape the future of agri-environmental schemes.

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