Figures and analysis revealed at a farming conference in the Yorkshire Dales this week have suggested that a payment by results approach to agri-environment schemes can produce “amazing” environmental enhancements and strengthen trust between farmers and government agencies.
Held at the Key Centre in Middleham, the conference marked the end of a three year EU-funded project to test the payment by results approach in Wensleydale and in Norfolk, although the government has since stepped in to directly fund the pilots for a further two years.
One of the key findings announced at the event was that hay meadows and wader habitat in the Wensleydale pilot had performed better that those in conventional agri-environment schemes.
A panel of four local farmers spoke at the conference in support of the payment by results approach.
And one of the senior civil servants at Defra tasked with designing a new post-Brexit Environmental Land Management system, James Le Page, told the 127 delegates that Defra was “really interested” to explore the potential for expanding on the model.
The conference began with an introduction from the conference chair, Malham farmer and Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority member, Neil Heseltine.
He said the 2015 start date for the payment by results pilots – “affectionately known as RBAPS” (Results-Based Agricultural Payment Schemes) – was very important:
“Defra was looking at new approaches to agri-environment before the EU referendum,” he said.
“The Brexit vote added impetus to that thinking – and will possibly allow Defra to explore a more flexible approach to AE schemes.”
Natural England senior adviser, Annabelle Le Page, the project manager for the Wensleydale pilot, gave an overview of RBAPS.
“The conventional approach, which we have in all the mainstream agri-environment schemes such as Countryside Stewardship and Environmental Stewardship, is management-based.
“These schemes] prescribe the management that the land manager should undertake and lead to a fixed payment at the end of the year.
“One of the things with this prescription-based approach is that, with verification under EU rules, there’s been an increasing burden of evidence required – proof that that the management has been undertaken. That might be field records, data sheets of fertiliser inputs or stocking calendars. To be fair, these [schemes] have been operating for decades within the UK and they have achieved quite a lot in that period. But they are not without their issues – and that’s one of the reasons why an alternative approach is being looked at: the results-based approach.
She said the main question was whether such an approach could “deliver better for the environment”.
The next speaker was Natural England Senior Adviser, Vicky Robinson, the project manager for the arable pilot in Norfolk, in which farmers are being paid to produce winter bird food, as well as flowers for insect pollinators. She told the conference that despite some difficulties with the scoring system and farmers’ self-assessments, the environmental performance was higher under payment by results than under conventional schemes.
“If we lay down the gauntlet and say ‘this is what we want’, the farmers deliver. They love the freedom and flexibility [of payment by results],” she said.
The Wensleydale part of the pilot – which has been paying farmers to produce species rich hay meadows, or good habitat for wading birds – has been run by the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority (YDNPA) farm team in partnership with Natural England.
YDNPA farm conservation adviser, Jane Le Cocq, gave a presentation explaining why Wensleydale had been chosen as the pilot area.
She said upland hay meadows had become a “very, very rare habitat” in the UK, and that of those that remained in the National Park, 46% were in Wensleydale. The dale also had stable populations of curlew, lapwing, snipe and redshank.
YDNPA senior farm conservation adviser, Helen Keep, then revealed two years’ worth of data from the scheme.
Figures showed there had been an “amazing increase in species frequency” in meadows in the scheme.
12 of the 19 farmers in the scheme had produced hay meadows that had gone up at least one payment band – meaning that the fields had become more species rich – with only one farmer going down a band.
“There has been a slow shift up the payment tiers, with farmers increasing their scores and therefore increasing their payment,” she said.
Farmers had chosen to carry out a variety of management actions to improve the species-richness of their meadows, including spreading lime to make them less acidic; reducing fertiliser; removing livestock earlier to allow a longer shut up period; spreading fresh seed and planting plug plants; and carrying out more active weed control.
“A lot of back breaking work has gone into the meadows. On average, a payment by results farmer undertook four new management actions,” she said.
However, farmers had chosen to block drains; spray rushes to create more ideal cover; create shallow pools; and experiment with different stock types and levels.
“The PBR sites improved compared with control sites. Give it a couple of years and I think they will far outperform the control sites,” she said.
Lastly, she summarised the results of attitudinal surveys that had been carried out with farmers at the start of the pilot, in late 2015, and at the end.
She said Yorkshire farmers had shown a similar reaction to the pilots as the Norfolk farmers.
“They are really keen on the flexibility and the fact that there are no prescriptions. They are getting recognised for the work they are doing and they are getting rewarded for the environmental improvement that they are achieving.
“The farmers are focussed on the results and there is less bureaucracy. But, weather conditions have been a problem; there are worries about the time it takes for us as advisers to deliver this; and conflicting scores are also an issue.”
In conclusion, she said: “We feel that this project has been a success. We’ve got engaged farmers, enthusiastic farmers, gaining confidence.
“And most importantly, there’s an element of trust here and I think that has been lost in the conventional approaches to agri-environment schemes.”
Four of the farmers in the Wensleydale pilot then came forward to form a panel to take questions from the conference floor.
Paul Hunter, who has two meadows in the scheme and farms at West Witton, said his motivation to enter the scheme had been financial: “[I was] seeking to make as much money as I could from the farm.”
He said that retaining control over how he managed his land was the best aspect of the scheme: “I can turn sheep in and out of the meadows as and when I need, according to the spring; it doesn’t really matter as long as I get the results. I can give some sheep and lambs an early bite if they need it, if I think that is going to be more worthwhile to me than jumping up a payment band.”
Farmer Andrew Kearton, who has two meadows in scheme in Upper Wensleydale, said: “It seemed an opportunity to put these fields in a scheme and yet have more control over them.
“Under a lot of the other schemes, cutting dates are so restrictive, and in the past some of this grass has had to go into silage because the weather was not there. Whereas this allows us flexibility and there’s the opportunity to make some quite decent money out of it.”
Coverdale farmer Caroline Harrison, who has land in the breeding waders part of the scheme, said: “The old fashioned schemes were telling you when you can put the stock on. With this scheme], you can graze the field until the birds start breeding, as breeding can start at different times depending on the weather.
“The other [good] thing is the guidance and help and training, because there’s no other scheme before it that has given us any understanding of what we’ve been trying to achieve.”
Andrew Keiley, who farms in Hardraw, said: “Ours is a fledgling business and we were looking to generate as much income as possible.
“We were only receiving basic payments, so it was a chance to explore a new opportunity. It was an incentive to us to try to score as high as possible.”
In the afternoon sessions, delegates heard about the application of payment by results schemes in Ireland from Gwyn Jones of the European Forum on Nature Conservation and Pastoralism.
They also heard how the National Trust is running and funding its own ‘Payment for Outcomes’ schemes in Wharfedale and Malhamdale.
The last speaker of the day was Principal Adviser at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, James Le Page, who is working on a post-EU Exit Environmental Land Management system.
He said: “We’re delighted with the success of the arable and upland pilots and we’re really pleased to be able to carry on with those and provide additional funding now the European funding component has ended.
“And we’re really interested to explore how much potential there is to expand on that model, while also being aware of the challenges.
“We’ll only apply payment by results after extensive co-design and testing.”
He went on to explain the government’s latest thinking on the future of farm payments post-Brexit, when the area-based Basic Payment Scheme will be wound down:
“The current situation that farmers and land managers have to deal with is very complex.
“You’ve got a whole load of guidance to deal with, and application forms; it’s a lot to manage and it’s not working for us.
“So the vision is for one flexible contract, one set of guidance, and mass uptake. An Environmental Land Management system will be the cornerstone of that policy.
“We are looking for a new relationship with our land managers.
“It’s not one where you are customers of subsidy.
“You are much more contractors, contracted to deliver public goods in a way which fits alongside your other marketable products.”