Could results based payment benefit farmers and the environment?

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Rewarding farmers for environmental work is the subject of an interesting pilot project. James Pyrah assesses its merits.

Schemes that reward farmers for undertaking agri-environmental schemes have had longstanding support – and uptake – from farmers across the country. However, many have become disenchanted as a result of the bureaucratic complexity and rigid nature of the system.

The solution to these problems could lie in the results-based payment (RBP) method, which is used widely across Europe. Apart from a short-lived pilot in the 1980s, RBP has not been implemented in the UK. Instead, our otherwise first-class agri-environment programmes have been subject to increasingly inflexible rules that give farmers little or no latitude.

It’s true that prescriptive schemes do deliver positive outcomes. However, critics argue that RBP could create a system that raises the motivation to produce environmental results, is easier to manage (due to the absence of compliance checks), and makes the most of farmers’ expert knowledge by letting them use their initiative.

How RBP operates on the ground

RBP involves setting environmental objectives for a specific option (such as the number of flowering species present); creating thresholds using success indicators (for instance, which species must be present); and setting payment levels for each threshold.

An agreement is then signed off and the farmer carries out the work, which is monitored (for example to establish how many species are present), before payment is made based on thresholds met.

Testing the lie of the land

Back in 2015 Natural England secured EU funding to run pilot schemes in Norfolk (arable) and the Yorkshire Dales (upland grass), with mixed early-stage outcomes.

While there are tangible benefits to farmers and the environment, it seems that the RBP method is not best suited to all situations and will only be appropriate to those using certain criteria (for example, where indicator species are sensitive to management change, or aren’t influenced by factors beyond farmers’ control).

Looking to the future

Nonetheless, UK policymakers are looking at RBP schemes as part of the post-Brexit agri-environment settlement and it does appear that demonstrable farming, as well as environmental benefits can be achieved by giving farmers greater management freedom.

Of course, any RBP schemes would have to be carefully piloted to identify obstacles and resolve implementation issues. Just as importantly, support and incentives would have to be improved to make the programmes sufficiently attractive and effective.

Whatever schemes are devised and proposed, it will be interesting to see what the future holds for this vital area of land management.

For more information on the grants available, contact James Pyrah at Robson & Liddle on 01768 254354.