THE UK GOVERNMENT has published details of its scheme to pay farmers for managing land more sustainably, restoring nature and tackling climate change. The UK’s three largest nature charities say the announcement is a huge disappointment, and does not bode well for nature, climate, or farming.

The Wildlife Trusts, National Trust and RSPB are deeply concerned that  promises made by Government in its 25-year environment plan are now in jeopardy.

Craig Bennett, Chief Executive of The Wildlife Trusts, said: “After leaving the EU, we were promised that the billions of pounds of taxpayer’s money given to farmers would be used to improve our natural world. But today’s publication shows a shocking lack of ambition which does very little to address the climate and nature crises. The Government seems intent on perpetuating the iniquities of the EU’s much derided Common Agricultural Policy. Worse still, nature-friendly farmers look set to lose out too.

“There’s so much that farmers could be rewarded for doing, such as restoring peatlands and employing ambitious measures to prevent soil and pollutants from washing into rivers – to help wildlife and store carbon. It’s an absolute scandal that the Government has failed to seize this unique and important opportunity to improve farming so it can help restore nature and address the climate crisis.”

Beccy Speight, Chief Executive of RSPB, said: “Leaving the EU and its divisive Common Agricultural Policy gave us the perfect opportunity to reform the way we produce and consume food whilst also tackling the nature and climate crises. However, this Government is letting this opportunity slip through their fingers by not supporting nature friendly farming and not delivering on previous promises. Not only does this go against public wishes but it also undermines the Government’s ability to deliver their own environmental targets as a result. Farmers want to be doing more but they need incentives in place to help them.”

Hilary McGrady, Director-General of the National Trust, said: “Nearly four years has passed since the Government set out its vision for the future of food, farming and the environment in a ‘Green Brexit’, centre-stage being the delivery of a better and richer environment in England. But the future of wildlife and climate now looks uncertain as today’s announcement falls short of the ambitious reforms promised. Farmers need a clear path to a future where nature is at the heart of sustainable and secure food production, not the short diversion this new scheme creates.

“We want farmers to be justly rewarded for playing their part with a carefully-designed scheme, but Government also needs to help farmers quickly embrace a new business model that delivers for farming and the environment. With wildlife and climate ‘on hold’ until the New Year, we hope our concerns will be met with a new resolution to turn things around and move at the speed that farmers, people and nature needs.”

The UK Government has stated its ambition to be a ‘world leader’ on climate and nature, but the charities say it cannot tackle these twin crises without wholesale reform of farming policy. They say the new Sustainable Farming Incentive falls far short of the Secretary of State’s statement at COP26 that the Government is “leading the way through our new agricultural system in England, which will incentivise farmers to farm more sustainably, create space for nature on their land and reduce carbon emissions.” Instead, they say the new scheme is at risk of recreating the status quo by funding basic good practice, and in some cases will not require any extra benefits for nature at all.

The charities say nature-friendly farmers are a risk of being left behind by the new scheme, and the Government needs an ambitious scheme that will rise to the challenges of the 2030 biodiversity and 2050 climate goals.

The charities say that wildlife losses over recent decades have been largely caused by modern agricultural policy and farming methods, which have contributed to the disappearance of 97 per cent of lowland meadows and 80 per cent of purple heathlands, which are home to bilberries, sand lizards and curlew. In England, only 14 per cent of rivers meet standards for good ecological status, and much of this is due to agricultural pollution, causing 13 per cent of freshwater and wetland species in to be threatened with extinction. Butterflies and moths have been particularly hard hit with numbers down by 17 per cent and 25 per cent respectively. Mammals also fare badly, with more than 26 per cent of species at risk of disappearing altogether.

* Read Sustainable Farming Incentive: how the scheme will work in 2022 here.

* Source: The Wildlife Trusts