Defra says new Local Nature Recovery and Landscape Recovery schemes will work in conjunction with incoming Sustainable Farming Incentive

The government has today announced fresh plans to restore 300,000 hectares of habitat across England, as it attempts to push forward with plans to reform farming subsidies to help enhance nature protection and accelerate the net zero transition.

Defra today unveiled proposals for two new environmental land management schemes in the form of a Local Nature Recovery Scheme and a Landscape Recovery Scheme, which it said would work in conjunction with the previously announced Sustainable Farming Incentive to provide farmers and landowners with “a broad range of voluntary options from which they can choose the best for their business”.

The Local Nature Recovery Scheme is designed to pay farmers for locally-targeted actions which make space for nature in the farmed landscape and countryside such as creating wildlife habitat, planting trees or restoring peat and wetland areas. Meanwhile, the Landscape Recovery Scheme aims to support more radical changes to land-use change and habitat restoration, such as establishing new nature reserves, restoring floodplains, or creating woodland and wetlands.

Together the two schemes are expected to help restore up to up to 300,000 hectares of wildlife habitat by 2042, while supporting the government’s goals to halt the decline in species by 2030 and bring up to 60 per cent of England’s agricultural soil under sustainable management by 2030.

Environment Secretary George Eustice is today set to address the Oxford Farming Conference, where he will announce that applications will shortly open for the first wave of Landscape Recovery projects.

Defra said up to 15 projects will be selected in this first wave, focusing on two themes – recovering England’s threatened native species and restoring England’s rivers and streams.

The pilot projects alone are expected to create 10,000 hectares of restored wildlife habitat, deliver carbon savings of between 25 to 50 kilotonnes per year – roughly equivalent to taking between 12,000 and 25,000 cars off the road – and enhanced protection for some of the UK’s most threatened species, such as the Eurasian curlew, sand lizard, and water vole.

An early version of the Local Nature Recovery scheme – which is designed to replace the existing Countryside Stewardship scheme – is then expected to be trialled in 2023 with a full roll-out across the country expected from 2024.

“We want to see profitable farming businesses producing nutritious food, underpinning a growing rural economy, where nature is recovering and people have better access to it,” Eustice said. “Through our new schemes, we are going to work with farmers and land managers to halt the decline in species, reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, increase woodland, improve water and air quality and create more space for nature.

“We are building these schemes together, and we are already working with over 3,000 farmers across the sector to test and trial our future approach. Farmers will be able to choose which scheme or combination of schemes works best for their business, and we will support them to do so.”

The announcement comes at the start of a critical year for the government’s post-Brexit farming subsidy reforms, which have faced criticism from both farmers and environmental campaigners.

The government is pursuing the biggest shake up of farming subsidies in over 50 years as it works to move away from the land-based subsidies provided through the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and towards a new system where farmers and landowners are paid based on the environmental services they provide.

Environmental groups have broadly welcomed the concept behind the proposals, but concerns remain that the new Sustainable Farming Incentive could reward landowners for making only modest improvements.

Last month the government provided further details on how the Sustainable Farming Incentive scheme would work, sparking fierce criticism from leading conservation groups which accused Ministers of breaking promises to deliver a ‘green Brexit’.

Speaking at the time, Craig Bennett, chief executive of The Wildlife Trusts, said the plans showed “a shocking lack of ambition which does very little to address the climate and nature crises” that jeopardised the promise that post-Brexit “the billions of pounds of taxpayer’s money given to farmers would be used to improve our natural world”.

“The government seems intent on perpetuating the iniquities of the EU’s much derided Common Agricultural Policy,” he said. “Worse still, nature-friendly farmers look set to lose out too.”

Meanwhile, farmers have voiced fears that the reforms could result in a net reduction in financial support at a time when they are set to face more intense competition as a result of trade deals that allow imports produced to lower standards. Some have also echoed environmental campaigner’s concerns that the schemes will have a negligible impact on habitats and carbon sinks.

Writing on Twitter recently, farmer and writer James Rebanks warned that “the farming press is full of farmers saying they won’t bother with these schemes being offered because of pitiful payment rates.

“I’ll wager with anyone that our environment is worse not better in 10 years time,” he added. “They don’t get the maths, and don’t really care.”

However, the government has insisted the reforms will lead to significant improvements in habitats, the expansion of natural carbon sinks, and enhanced soil quality and flood resilience, while also maintaining food security. As such, Ministers will be hoping the new nature-focused schemes will help alleviate some of the criticism the government has been facing over the planned Sustainable Farming Incentive scheme.

Defra said that by 2028 it expected spending to be evenly split across farm-level, locally tailored, and landscape-scale investment. “All schemes will be designed to pay for public goods which go above and beyond regulatory baselines and the schemes won’t pay for the same actions twice,” it added. “All the environmental schemes will be voluntary and it will be for farmers to decide what combination of actions is right for them.”

The new schemes were welcomed by Tony Juniper, Chair of Natural England, who said that collectively the government’s reforms “mark an historic shift in the way we manage our land, setting us on course toward the production of sustainable food at the same time as rising to the urgent task if halting and reversing the decline of nature”.

“More than two thirds of England is farmed and these reforms pave the way for those who manage the land to produce healthy food alongside other vital benefits, such as carbon storage, clean water, reduced flood risk, thriving wildlife and beautiful landscapes for everyone to enjoy,” he said. “At Natural England we look forward to working with the government to breathe life into England’s Nature Recovery Network, including through the very exciting ambition to create large scale Landscape Recovery Areas.”

The new schemes were also welcomed by WWF CEO Tanya Steele, although she stressed that they needed to be backed by legally binding plans to ensure they deliver environmental improvements promised by the government.

“Supporting farmers to reduce agricultural emissions significantly is the right vision,” she said. “The UK government now needs to put in place legally binding strategies and plans for reducing emissions from agriculture and land use which ensure farmers in England reap the maximum benefits of shifting to a Net Zero, nature positive farming system and help build resilience into our food systems.

“This is a unique opportunity to rethink how we manage our green and pleasant landscapes to boost farming communities, restore nature and slash greenhouse gas emissions and we need ambitious targets and bold policies to make it happen.”

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