Mark Spencer tells Oxford Farming Conference that farmers can earn up to an extra £1,000

Mark Spencer

Mark Spencer

Source: Richard Townshend

Farmers are set to receive increased payments for protecting and enhancing nature and delivering sustainable food production under the government’s Environmental Land Management (ELM) schemes, Defra has announced.

Speaking at the Oxford Farming Conference, farming minister Mark Spencer announced more money for farmers and landowners through both the Countryside Stewardship and the Sustainable Farming Incentive schemes, which he said will provide more support to the industry and drive uptake at a time of rising costs for farmers.

He added that an expanded range of actions under the schemes, which farmers could be paid for, would be published soon. 

Defra said the changes mean farmers could receive up to a further £1,000 per year for taking nature-friendly action through the Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI). This new Management Payment will be made for the first 50 hectares of farm (£20/ha) in an SFI agreement, to cover the administrative costs of participation and to attract smaller businesses - many of whom are tenant farmers - who are currently under-represented in the scheme.

SFI is already paying farmers to improve soil and moorlands, and an expanded set of standards for 2023 is set to be published shortly.

In addition, farmers with a Countryside Stewardship (CS) agreement will see an average increase of 10% to their revenue payment rates, to cover ongoing activity such as habitat management. Defra is also updating capital payment rates, which cover one-off projects such as hedgerow creation, with an average increase of 48%.

Meanwhile, capital and annual maintenance payments for the England Woodland Creation Offer (EWCO) and Tree Health Pilot (THP) will also be updated this year, helping to incentivise farmers to incorporate more trees as a natural resource on farms. 

Defra said that taken together, these changes will mean more farmers taking individual positive actions such as creating hedgerows and flower-rich grass areas on the edge of fields and will support farmers and landowners in making space for nature alongside sustainable food production.

Spencer told the Oxford Farming Conference: “My challenge to our great industry is simple - this year, take another look at the Environmental Land Management schemes and think about what options and grants will help support your farm.

“As custodians of more than 70% of our countryside, the nation is relying on its farmers to protect our landscapes as well as produce the high-quality food we are known for, and we are increasing payment rates to ensure farmers are not out of pocket for doing the right thing by the environment.

“By increasing the investment in these schemes, I want farmers to see this stacks up for business – whatever the size of your holding.”

‘More clarity needed’

Spencer’s announcement received a lukewarm reception from the NFU, which pointed out that there needs to be more clarity on the ELM schemes and option available.

NFU vice president David Exwood said: “While some of these latest changes are welcome, including enhanced payments for farmers and landowners through the Countryside Stewardship scheme and the introduction of a Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) management payment, it risks being too little too late, especially given the current economic challenges we are experiencing and the rapid erosion of direct payments.

“It is hugely frustrating that nearly five years on from Defra’s Health and Harmony consultation, which set farming in England on a path towards public goods for public payments, we still only have three standards available for the SFI. It’s a sad reflection of the scheme’s progress and development that NFU members know more about what they will lose in direct payments than what they will gain from taking part in these new schemes.

“The NFU has always been very clear; for the ELM to succeed it needs to be simple, provide certainty and fairly reward farmers for taking part. This means schemes that are inclusive and available to every farm business - whether upland or lowland, tenant or owner-occupied - with a range of practical and profitable options available through a ‘foundation’ SFI standard to ensure the high uptake needed so these schemes have the desired impact. Ministers must also demonstrate transparently how direct payments have been redirected to the ELM programme.

“British farmers are committed to delivering net-zero agriculture by 2040, and the NFU remains committed to working with Defra to improve its ELM offer so the schemes can deliver the statutory environmental targets government ministers agreed last month. It is in everyone’s interest we ensure sustainable, climate-friendly British farming in the future, with farmers doing what they do best; producing food alongside protecting and maintaining our environment.”