Wensleydale farmers trialling new ‘payments by results’ agri-environment scheme

Tom Fawcett on his farm in Askrigg.

Wensleydale has become one of two pilot areas in England for a new style of agri-environment scheme in which farmers retain full control over the management of their land.

19 farms in Wensleydale are taking part in the three-year “Payment by Results” project.

The project is being coordinated by Natural England and delivered in partnership with the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority (YDNPA), which is acting on behalf of the Northern Upland Chain Local Nature Partnership (NUCLNP).

Farmers are being paid for producing species-rich meadows and/or good quality habitat for breeding waders such as curlew, snipe, lapwing and redshank.

The payments, in keeping with all agri-environment (AE) schemes, subsidise the costs to the farmer of managing their land less intensively than they otherwise would to maximise profits.

The big difference between Payment by Results and the previous and current AE schemes such as Countryside Stewardship is that it carries no prescriptions for the farmer.

Instead of following a set of rules, such as strict mowing dates, farmers are free to manage the land as they see fit in order to achieve a positive environmental outcome or result.

The farmers will annually assess the well-being of habitats against a set of agreed indicators to achieve an overall “health” score. From this self-assessment, they can measure their success and set targets for the following year.

For meadows, the greater the number of plant species, the higher the payment, ranging from £112 – £371 per hectare.

For breeding waders, good results include the right rush cover, varied sward height and a high quantity of wet features.

A farmer will be marked down, and receive a lower payment, if the land is heavily poached, or cut up because of use of heavy machinery.

Payments range from £35 – £174 per hectare.

Breeding wader habitat in the Yorkshire Dales

One of the Wensleydale farmers in the pilot, Tom Fawcett, 58, representing CH Fawcett and Sons of Nappa Scar, Askrigg, said: “It’s a good scheme and I hope it succeeds, because it is helping to preserve hay meadows and wetland habitats.  There’s not too much red tape and you’re letting farmers get on with it.

“Without this compensation, you’d need to increase your stocking ratio to meet rising costs.  That would mean improving the land by draining it, or adding lime or fertiliser.

“I only hope this scheme is carried on. Millions of pounds have been wasted when ESA schemes have been dropped overnight, with land being improved after the payments stopped.”

YDNPA’s Senior Farm Conservation Officer, Helen Keep, said:  “‘Payment by Results’ is designed to be simpler and more cost-effective than previous and existing agri-environment schemes.  It works on the principle that farmers know their land better than anyone, and should not be required to follow prescribed land management methods.

“The scheme challenges them to produce results, in other words environmental benefits, rather than to follow management plans.

“The project has been developed in consultation with farmer groups up and down the northern Pennines.  Farmers’ involvement in the design of the scheme has ensured that it is understandable, practical and achievable.”

The Chair of the NUCLNP, Professor David Hill, said: “We believe that hill farming is critical to the economy, communities and environment of the Yorkshire Dales and the rest of the northern Pennines.  Through the LNP, farmers, environmental bodies and agencies are working together to find new ways to support the economic viability of low-intensity farming methods that are more environmentally friendly.  We’re delighted that Natural England is working directly with the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority to test out this innovative approach, which we hope can then be rolled out to other parts of the northern Pennines.”

Farmers wanting more details about the Wensleydale “Payment by Results” scheme can contact Helen Keep on 01756 751611.