Farmers are to receive subsidies for cultivating land with environmentally friendly practices, the government said yesterday.
The environment stewardship scheme will allow farmers to earn money for environmental protection and enhancement work. This could mean maintaining hedgerows or leaving strips at the sides of fields uncultivated to provide habitats for birds and mammals, or creating wildflower plots for bees.
Margaret Beckett, environment secretary, said: “This is a real red-letter day for English farming. We are making good progress to- wards ensuring farming is truly sustainable. The more farmers that become in-volved, the greater the benefit to the environment. Reversing the long-term decline in farmland birds, for example, requires action to improve habitats over wide areas.”
Farmers will earn up to £30 a hectare a year for good environmental management of their land. Organic farmers can earn up to £60 a hectare for land entered into the scheme. The project is likely to cost more than £300m a year within a few years, more than double the £150m a year spent on environmental land management.
For the first time the scheme makes explicit the connection between good environmental practices and subsidies – which is at the heart of the European Union’s single payment scheme, part of the reform of the common agricultural policy. The single payment scheme, replacing 11 subsidies, came into effect on January 1.
Lord Whitty, the farms minister, has told farmers the need to look after the environment is the main justification for why they should receive state subsidies denied to other industries.
Conservation of wildlife is one of the main aims of the scheme, but the protection of the historic environment and the promotion of public access to the countryside are also important.
Rob Macklin, head of agriculture at the National Trust, called the scheme a “watershed for the industry”. “Environmental stewardship offers all farmers, whether extensive livestock producers or intensive arable farmers, new opportunities to improve their farmed environment and provide more public access, and be rewarded for doing so.”
The National Trust manages 250,000 hectares of countryside, more than 80 per cent of which is managed by 2,000 tenant farmers. The charity hopes that all its tenant farmers will join the stewardship scheme.
Many farmers who took part in a pilot project have welcomed the scheme. Chris Carter, an arable farmer from Spalding, Lincolnshire, said: “If we can enhance the stark beauty of the Fens by providing some sympathetic environmental features including extra bird habitats, we will be continuing the work of our forefathers. It’s early days but there are more birds on the fields because it’s the first time we’ve had field margins.”
Fiona Harvey, Financial Times