Defra’s ‘Path to Sustainable Farming’ promises a positive approach to conservation

Wild Flower Margin Allerton“We want to support the choices that farmers and land managers take on their holdings,” writes George Eustice in the foreword of Defra’s Agricultural Transition Plan, launched yesterday (30 November). For farmers working under the trappings of the Common Agricultural Policy, this will provide a welcome sense of relief. In fact, much of the 66-page report will.

The new scheme reflects many of the suggestion made by the GWCT – it is voluntary, open to all farmers and pledges to support farmers to deliver public goods. All good news. It is also welcome to read that Defra’s new approach draws on the key message of the Sustainable Food and Farming Scheme, written by the GWCT and others, that a farm’s environmental and business successes do not exist in isolation. The plan aims to ensure that all farmers will be managing their whole business in a way that delivers profitable food production and the recovery of nature, and offers support with planning, training, and advice to achieve this.

The Farming Investment Fund looks to fulfil the government’s intention of designing “a policy for tomorrow’s farmers as well as today’s”, with grants to invest in equipment, technology and infrastructure that will improve their profitability and benefit the environment. This should hopefully keep more farmers on the land and make it even easier to farm efficiently, make space for nature, and profitable production in one place.

Guidance for farmers doesn’t stop there. The Rural Payments Agency, once three words to bring most farmers out in a panic, is to take a new, supportive approach. Rather than defaulting to instant financial penalties, the RPA will take a more conciliatory tone, offering help, support, and advice to those who need it, whilst pledging to provide more information to farmers before they are inspected.

In 2010, Sir John Lawton called for England’s ecological network to be “more, bigger, better and joined”, promoting landscape-scale recovery. On this, the plan has two shortcomings.

Crucially, Defra has yet to establish how best to reward a joined-up, system-based approach to conservation. We know that individual measures can offer hope for wildlife recovery, soil health and carbon capture, but true success can be achieved when many separate measures create an impact greater than their individual parts. Good ground cover will improve a farmer’s soil health, for example, but combine it with reduced tillage and a sensible rotation and the results are magnified. We hope the final details of the scheme will recognise this.

As for Lawton’s ‘joined’ approach to land management, as seen on Farmer Clusters, the plan promises to “look to run a further round of the Facilitation Fund.” The encouragement of facilitation funding runs neatly in parallel in with the aim to empower and encourage farmers, set out by the Minister, so we hope this intention is made more concrete in due course.

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