Rishi Sunak should “fast track, not back track” on nature-friendly farming reforms, conservation groups have urged.
Wildlife and Countryside Link is urging the new Prime Minister to maintain and boost funding for the new environmental land management scheme (Elms) and to deliver on all strands of the plans to support nature.
The call comes as the Government prepares to set out proposals on the future of farming funding, after it announced a review of the policy, and polling suggests the public think ministers are not supporting farmers to help nature.
Conservation groups reacted angrily to what they describe as an “attack on nature” under Liz Truss’s brief tenure, and are demanding Mr Sunak reverses it by fast tracking ambitious farming reforms.
Polling for Wildlife and Countryside Link – a coalition of green and countryside groups including the National Trust, the Nature Friendly Farming Network, the RPSB and Plantlife – reveals widespread support for paying farmers to restore habitats, wildlife and landscapes.
And it found a majority of the public feel that farmers are not getting enough money to help them protect nature.
The Elms payments, which cover England, will replace the EU subsidies regime for agriculture which made payments mostly on the basis of the amount of land farmed.
The new programme was intended to pay farmers with taxpayers’ money for public goods, such as wildlife restoration, clean air and water, and healthy soils – which green groups say also secures future food production.
Alongside payments for sustainable farming practices such as managing soils, Elms is designed to pay for “local nature recovery” habitat creation on farms, and “landscape recovery” projects to restore nature at a large scale, including rewilding schemes.
But the Government’s decision to review the scheme led to reports it could abandon or curb the payments, particularly for the more ambitious, large-scale schemes.
A survey by YouGov of more than 1,700 people for Wildlife and Countryside Link found high levels of support among the public for farmers being financially rewarded for restoring nature.
Almost half (47%) agreed that the most important way to improve food security in the UK is to restore the natural resources farming relies on including pollinators and clean water, while 23% thought there were other more important ways to improve food security.
More than four fifths of those quizzed backed payments for farmers to restore soils, woodlands, lakes and rivers, and wildlife – and to prevent water pollution.
Almost as many (79%) backed financial rewards for farmers for restoring hedgerows, and 77% supported payments for restoring carbon-capturing land such as peatland and wetlands.
The survey also found that 55% of those questioned felt farmers were receiving too little support from the Government to improve the environment and nature – and just 5% thought they were getting too much.
Nearly half (48%) thought the funding under the new scheme should be increased compared to the old EU subsidies, a fifth (21%) thought farmers should receive the same amount of funding, and just 4% thought levels should fall.
Richard Benwell, chief executive of Wildlife and Countryside Link, said: “The Prime Minister should fast track environmental farming reforms, not back track, if he is to start rebuilding the Government’s environmental credentials.
“Any further delay would leave farmers uncertain about the future, and leave the environment susceptible.
“Instead, the Government should accelerate the move to regenerative farming, and increase the payments available to support the most ambitious nature positive agriculture.”
Martin Lines, UK chair of the Nature Friendly Farming Network, said farmers “stand ready” to deliver a farming system that feeds the nation and improves the health and vitality of rural environments.
HE said: “But first, we need an agriculture budget which is fit for purpose and capable of addressing the environmental challenges we face, alongside ambitious payment schemes that put environmental stewardship at the heart of farm business decision-making.
“Anything less would be a let-down for farmers and the public, and it would be a missed opportunity to make our food system more resilient and sustainable for the long-term.”
Nature groups want the PM to maintain funding for Elms now and increase it from 2025, and to prioritise ambition across all three areas of the programme – the sustainable farming incentive, nature recovery, and landscape recovery elements.
A spokesman for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said: “As the Prime Minister has set out, protecting our environment is at the heart of the Government’s manifesto and we will always back British farmers and our rural communities.
“We are pressing ahead with our environmental land management schemes and will be working closely with farmers, land managers and environmental groups as we look at ways to improve our future farming policy.
“Our aim is to strengthen our environment and support our thriving food and farming sector and (we) will set out more details later this year.”