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The future of farm support: what are the post-Brexit options? - Steve Trotter

Posted: Tuesday 6th December 2016 by TheWildlifeTrustsBlogger

Lapwings on a ploughed field (Mark Hamblin/2020Vision)

The vote to leave the European Union has left many farmers, land managers and conservationists uncertain about the future of state support for agriculture in the UK. Stephen Trotter, Director, The Wildlife Trusts England, looks at some emerging options for the future of farm support.

Our food, and our countryside. Two fundamentals which could be transformed by leaving the European Union. The choices the UK Government makes will affect us all, and it’s vital that we get more people involved in the debate about what happens to our countryside and how, as a society, we choose to support farming and land management when we leave the EU.


This public money could be used to give us more wildlife and habitats, better soil, cleaner water, more carbon storage and better managed floods.

Payments to farmers and land managers are the biggest single part of EU funding to the UK. Under the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), £3.2bn is paid to farmers in the UK each year. Around half of this comes from the EU, and the rest comes from the UK Government in a kind of “match funding” relationship. But it all comes from taxpayers one way or the other.


Currently, a majority of payments are made on an area basis (these are called ‘direct payments’). The more farmed land you own, the more money you receive, in return for compliance with baseline environmental conditions, for example leaving strips between ploughed fields and hedges or streams, and keeping records of pesticide use. Taken together these rules can have a major impact on our countryside – and is reflected in the numbers of barn owls and brown hares we see, the quality of our drinking water, the trees, meadows and soils we leave for future generations. Some payments are also made through ‘agri-environment’ schemes. These pay farmers and land managers to undertake beneficial practices for nature such as planting up new hedgerows or converting arable land to pollinator-friendly wildflower meadows and creating ponds.


The vote to leave the EU will mean the end of the current Common Agricultural Policy and its related payments, but there is not yet any clear plan for what will replace it. Although leaving the EU creates risks for some vital wildlife protection, it is simultaneously a chance to reconsider the way taxpayers’ money to farmers and landowners is used. This public money could be used to give us more wildlife and habitats, better soil, cleaner water, more carbon storage and better managed floods.


Let’s have a look at some of the emerging options and then consider them:

  1.  Business as usual
    The first option is to adopt the current system in new UK legislation. The taxpayer would continue to fund direct payments to farmers in some form. The most likely way to do this would be to continue the current area-based model where payments are based on the amount of farm land owned. Agri-environment schemes could be incorporated, as they are at present, to ensure that some land management continues to be held to high standards and deliver targeted outcomes for wildlife.
  2. All payments linked to environmental outcomes
    The second option could see the scrapping of direct payments to farmers based on the area of land owned, and instead make all payments dependent upon positive environmental results. As this is public money, public benefits are the natural focus, so this would in effect be a sort of large-scale agri-environment scheme that all farmers would be part of alongside running profitable farm businesses. Farmers and land managers could be paid through new contracts to provide different environmental benefits, such as planting hedges and trees, looking after soils better and maintaining wildflower rich meadows. There could be a tiered system, whereby those farmers who are doing the most to enhance the environment and care for wildlife are paid more, which seems fair for the taxpayer, farmers, the environment and wider society.
  3. Contracts for land management
    The third option is the most radical – it could involve stopping all direct payments and agri-environment schemes, and taking an entirely new approach. Money could be channelled through a public sector body that would issue contracts and a range of new incentives to landowners or groups of landowners to address the environmental problems of local areas. For example, take the Trent catchment in Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire and Staffordshire which currently receives millions of pounds a year. Here the key environmental problems could be identified, targets set to address them and then the project could be put out to tender to find who has the best offer to deliver the solutions to the problems. Through this system, society would in effect be commissioning farmers and land managers to deliver what society and local people need, and enter long term contracts to ensure the continuation of the solution. In my experience, farmers and landowners love finding solutions to problems and we really need to harness their practical know-how and ingenuity. Farmers are central to solving our environmental problems like flooding and need to be rewarded properly for it.


I think there are real problems with Option 1 – continuation of the current model. One obvious downside is that taxpayers currently pay to fund farming directly but then also pick up the cost of cleaning up downstream water pollution, caused at least in part, by some agricultural practices.


We want more farmers to be rewarded fairly for doing the right thing for our countryside

Farmers, landowners and land managers need the support of people and government to help create a healthy nature-rich countryside. We want more farmers to be rewarded fairly for doing the right thing for our countryside; to encourage them to do more to look after soils and water – and to reverse the habitat and wildlife declines and improve the ecological status of our countryside. I suspect that what may be most workable is a hybrid of the second and third approaches. This could combine a broad agri-environment type scheme that all farmers would be part of with a contract-based approach that targets particular areas. This could enable farmers and land managers to work together on larger-scale, multi-farm environmental projects that deliver public goods (in return for payment).


It is not yet clear what the Government’s preferred approach will be. One thing is for certain: we need to get more people involved in this vital debate about what happens to our land and food production. We need an informed public debate to connect people with the reality of farming and food production and what this means for our wildlife. Our long-term vision is for a new approach that rewards farmers and landowners to manage land sustainably for future generations – this is an exciting chance to create a better and more sustainable future for farmers, wildlife and people.


At the bottom of this blog is a link to a pdf outlining the principles we’d like to see at the heart of a new approach to policy for the UK’s countryside and farming. This was created together with WW-UK, the RSPB and the National Trust and launched at the Conservative Party Conference in October.

The Wildlife Trusts own 22 whole farms, like Abbotts Hall Farm in Essex. We have over 7,500 livestock and farm around 20,000 hectares of land (of a total landownership of 100,000ha). Trusts use EU funds for work such as wildflower meadow creation and management, creating and maintaining public access, hedgerow restoration, fencing, river restoration, pond creation - and much more. Our own land holdings are only part of the picture though - we also do a huge amount of work to encourage and advise farmers in environmentally sensitive farming, for example through working effectively with farmers to protect watercourses from pollution and create vibrant habitats for wildlife through catchment sensitive farming. We want to work with others who care for nature, farmers and conservation charities alike, to ensure that our precious natural world - the foundations of any future farming – is centre stage in the debate about the countryside we all want.


Stephen Trotter is The Wildlife Trusts' Director, England. He is passionate about wildlife and wild places and what they can do for people.


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