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Farmers in England to be paid for looking after soil health from next year

·5-min read
<span>Photograph: Design Pics Inc/Rex/Shutterstock</span>
Photograph: Design Pics Inc/Rex/Shutterstock

Farmers will be paid for looking after England’s soils for the first time from next year, when the first stage of the government’s new support payments begins.

Environmental groups criticised the measures as puny and accused ministers of failing in their promises to use the UK’s departure from the EU to strengthen environmental protections and reduce the damaging impacts of farming.

Farmers will be paid between £20 and £58 per hectare in England for basic measures to protect and nurture their soils, and nearly all farmers are likely to be eligible to apply for the payments, which will cover arable soils for crop cultivation as well as grassland, moorland and other soils.

The payments, along with others to come in future for further conservation measures, are set to reach £900m a year by the end of 2024, to meet the government’s pledge to phase out the old taxpayer subsidies based on the amount of land farmed – under the EU’s common agricultural policy (CAP) – and replace them with payments of “public money for public goods”.

Soil protection has been chosen as the first such payment after repeated government promises to prioritise the UK’s soils, which are a vital store of carbon. Some of the measures farmers will be required to undertake in return for the payments would be routine for many farmers anyway, such as planting cover crops on bare soil over winter. Bare soils are prey to erosion and runoff, so ensuring fields are covered in a crop that can return nutrients to the soil is key to its preservation.

George Eustice, the environment secretary, will announce the measures at the Country Land and Business Association (CLA) rural business conference in London on Thursday.

Mark Tufnell, the president of the CLA, which represents 28,000 farmers and rural businesses, said: “UK soil contains 10bn tonnes of carbon. There is no path towards net zero without better soil management … [These payments] are a good start, and show clear intent to support and reward farmers in their environmental delivery.”

But the leaders of three of the UK’s biggest green and conservation groups: the Wildlife Trusts, the RSPB and the National Trust jointly accused the government of failing to take seriously the urgent need for nature-friendly farming. They pointed to the sharp declines of native wildlife over the past three decades and said the government’s plans would do little to remedy that.

Hilary McGrady, the 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 … 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.”

Craig Bennett, the chief executive of the Wildlife Trusts, added: “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.”

Under the old CAP, farmers received between £2bn and £3bn a year. Subsidies were at first maintained at £2.4bn a year after Brexit but will be reduced to £900m by the end of this parliament. Basic payments allotted on the amount of land farmed will be phased out altogether by 2027, but in the meantime farmers who received most under the old scheme face the steepest cuts – 25% of their old subsidies – while smaller farmers will have their basic payments cut by 5% next year.

The shift will eventually lead to farmers signing environmental land management contracts, committing them to take measures to protect air and water quality and provide habitats for wildlife, in return for payments yet to be set out in detail. In the interim, the sustainable finance initiative – of which the soils scheme is the first part – will provide payments for basic environmental measures.

Farmers are facing an uncertain future due to the impacts of the Covid pandemic combined with Brexit, which is leading to sharp declines in farm exports amid reams of new red tape, the end of the old subsidy regime and the government’s new trade deals, which some fear could unleash a flood of cheap imported food produced at lower standards than are allowed in the UK.

Farming groups cautiously welcomed the new measures – which the government said had been designed to be flexible, to allow tenant farmers to apply easily, and to avoid “punitive” conditions in case of accidental breaches – but some are concerned they will not go far enough.

Lynette Steel, farm policy adviser at the Tenant Farmers Association, said the payments offered were “attractive enough” when combined with other government incentives, such as the stewardship scheme which rewards farmers for meeting basic environmental conditions. But she added that current high prices for food would discourage farmers from applying: “Given today’s commodity markets, many farmers will take the view that it is more financially beneficial to farm for [food] production rather than for soil protection, under the cost structure announced.”

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