Farm subsidy reform in England aiming to return land to nature

Plans to restore land to nature almost twice the area of London over the next two decades will be set out by ministers on Thursday as they overhaul England’s agricultural subsidies after Brexit.

Applications will open for the first 15 “landscape recovery” projects — the most ambitious tranche of the government’s plans to pay farmers and landowners for environmental work — as part of the changes announced by George Eustice, the environment secretary.

These initial projects will aim to restore 10,000 hectares of wildlife habitat and save carbon emissions equivalent to that of 25,000 cars, while improving the habitat of about half of England’s most threatened species, including the water vole, sand lizard and Eurasian curlew.

The landscape recovery scheme will pay farmers for “radical” changes to land use and habitats, such as setting up nature reserves, restoring flood plains, and creating large-scale woodlands or wetlands.

The new subsidy programmes will aim to restore 300,000 hectares of wildlife habitat by 2042, an area almost twice the size of the capital. They will also include a sustainable farming incentive, which will pay landowners for measures such as cutting fertiliser use, and the more ambitious “local nature recovery” scheme, aimed at projects such as restoring peatland.

“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.

But farming groups said the policy still lacked the detail needed to enable farmers to plan ahead, as they face a gradual tapering of EU-style subsidies paid according to land area by 2028 and the winding up of existing environmental schemes.

Tom Bradshaw, vice-president of the National Farmers’ Union, said more information was needed to allow farmers to make “crucial long-term decisions that [were] essential to them running viable and profitable businesses”.

Julia Aglionby, chair of the Uplands Alliance, said farmers and landowners “remain in the dark about how to ‘mind the yawning gap’ between [EU-style subsidies] phase out and [the new scheme’s] introduction.”

She described the restoration target as “very unambitious”, pointing out that 300,000 hectares restored for wildlife was less than 3 per cent of the landmass of England, and expressed concern about the lack of any financial commitments beyond this parliament.

The policy also lacked payments for work to improve cultural heritage or educational access, she added, despite earlier pledges that these would be included.

The UK’s three largest nature charities — the Wildlife Trusts, National Trust and RSPB — said Brexit presented a “golden opportunity” to manage land for nature but that this was “in jeopardy” because of the lack of detail.

Farmers, especially those raising livestock, have for decades relied heavily on EU subsidies, which amounted to more than £1.6bn a year in England. Ministers have pledged to maintain overall subsidy levels as they shift payments towards the new systems.

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