Sustainable Farming Incentive: Species Management and ELMS - Motion to Take Note

– in the House of Lords am 3:26 pm ar 25 Ionawr 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

The Earl of Caithness:

Moved by The Earl of Caithness

That this House takes note of the announcement of changes to the Sustainable Farming Incentive by the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on 4 January, and the case for including species management within the Environmental Land Management Scheme to support populations of endangered species and biodiversity in general.

Photo of The Earl of Caithness The Earl of Caithness Ceidwadwyr

My Lords, tonight is Burns Night. All around the world people will celebrate Scotland’s most famous bard and lyricist, but Burns was also a farmer whose poetry reflected his view of the natural world as a dynamic ecosystem that needed to be treated with care for the sake of us all and our fragile planet. Over the years his way of farming changed, and we ended up in 2020 lumbered with the discredited EU common agricultural policy. During that time farming gradually lost most of its vital connection with nature, which is one of the reasons why our planet is under such huge stress.

However, in 2020, with the Agriculture Act, the Government set out the new way forward for farming in England. The environmental land management scheme was to become the main vehicle for providing financial support to farmers in the future. The purpose of ELMS is to reward farmers, tenants, landowners, land managers, growers and foresters for delivering “public goods” and to make

“a significant contribution to the environment”— something that Burns would have thought logical. The new scheme was to be phased in on a transitional basis, beginning in 2021 and ending in 2027. We are now half way through the transition period. It is therefore a sensible time to stand back and assess how it is working.

Transitions for most people are difficult and, like moving house, emotional. I pay tribute to the farming community, who are adapting to a new and evolving system, learning new bureaucratic and technological skills, while still running their businesses with many working seven days a week as well as having to coping with an increasingly changeable climate.

The transition has not been, and is still not, straightforward. Systems need to change and adapt as they are developed. The 2020 proposals of a sustainable farming incentive, local nature recovery and landscape recovery have evolved. There have been mergers of policy as well as additions and subtractions. This has added complications for farmers in joining, adapting and changing schemes: grants have been forgone and payment windows narrowed. This year farmers will receive a minimum 50% reduction of their direct payments, which for many are the only reason they are able to stay in business. To date only 10% have engaged with SFI.

There have been concerns about the speed of implementation and complexity of the scheme, the problems faced by upland farmers, the need for more clarity and certainty as to what farmers need to do, the need for tenant farmers to be able to participate fully and, inevitably, the amount of funding available. The Government have been accused of not providing adequate levels of support to farmers during the rollout of the scheme. The transition is clearly telling on some farmers, with calls to that excellent organisation the Farming Community Network showing a notable increase in stress and financial-related problems.

However, the overall feedback on ELMS has been that it is a good step and in the right direction. The Government have shown flexibility by addressing many of the concerns and further, much welcomed, improvements to the scheme were announced in and following the speech of my right honourable friend the Secretary of State on 4 January. Nevertheless, that speech did not alleviate criticism that the rollout of the new scheme has been too slow.

The Office for Environmental Protection, in its recent report on the progress of the Government’s policies for improving the natural environment in England, argued that while some progress had been made on implementation of ELMS, its rollout needs to be accelerated. The Country Land and Business Association has criticised the Government for not opening applications for the updated scheme until the summer of 2024, arguing that farm businesses urgently need more financial support now.

Getting more information and detail out to farmers quickly is a must. I join the National Farmers’ Union in wanting full details of the combined SFI/Countryside Stewardship scheme offer made available as soon as possible, along with a date for when the new application window will be open. The Tenant Farmers Association reminded me that a similar summer promise was made last year, but summer did not come until 1 September. I say to my noble friend: that is not acceptable this year. It must be much earlier than that.

It is good to hear farmers discussing how much of their output has increased and inputs reduced through farming in a more nature-friendly way. The improved payment rates for the SFI and Countryside Stewardship scheme are to be commended. However, farmers can now sign a five-year agreement using SFI payments, which give a better return than producing food but with no measurable benefit to nature. That might turn out to be a catastrophic own goal. Can my noble friend reassure me and the Nature Friendly Farming Network that a measurable level of environmental benefit will also be required in return for a grant?

The Government need to meet their environmental targets, in particular their commitment to the apex goal within the environmental improvement plan of thriving plants and wildlife. There is a legally binding target for species abundance by 2030, with a requirement to increase species populations by 10% by 2024. The Government have said that ELMS will support species recovery and management action by farmers, landowners and other managers. For the purpose of ELMS, the Government define species recovery and management as covering those actions which

“increase the abundance of particular species, including by managing other species (invasive non-natives and predators) that present a threat, and supporting rare native breeds”.

Given all the international agreements and conventions to which the UK has signed up, the additional national legislation, the increase in organisations interested in areas set aside for wildlife and the large sum of taxpayers’ money already spent annually on agri-environment schemes, this country should have a surfeit of wildlife. It does not, so one must ask: why has it failed so badly? One part of the answer is that it is widely acknowledged that there are three legs to the stool of nature conservation: providing habitat, providing good food sources, and legal predator management. The first leg has been available for some time and the second is more recent. They are options within SFI but the third is not—and a two-legged stool does not function well.

It is just too simplistic and naive to blame all the failure on farming operations. It is true that habitat provision through agri-environment schemes has produced benefits for certain aspects of the life cycle for a great many species. The provision of attractive nesting habitat, foraging areas in summer and winter, and winter food resources in the “hungry gap” has helped. The cirl bunting and corncrake are notable beneficiaries. The introduction of new premium payments for certain high-priority actions, including nesting plots for lapwing, is welcome. However, of deep concern are the many examples of the provision of habitat alone not halting decline of species, let alone bringing about recovery. I would mention puffins, Manx shearwaters, water voles, brown hares, grey partridge, black grouse, curlew and lapwing.

In 2015 and 2016, as part of the curlew recovery initiative based on the Shropshire/Welsh border, 30 nests were monitored to find the cause of curlew breeding failure in a significant local population in excellent habitat. In each year, only 1% of nests got beyond the egg stage to produce chicks. All chicks were subsequently lost. Over 50% of the egg predation was by foxes and 25% by badgers, which are protected, with crows also being a significant nest robber.

Approximately £23 million per year is spent on agri-environment options to support breeding waders on grassland, but given the poor results, one must question whether this is good value for money. Clearly, more needs to be done and there is good evidence across Europe that, where the provision of the right habitat alone has failed, the combination of habitat improvement and targeted, effective predation management can lead to the recovery of species of conservation concern.

As a result of a conservation programme led by the RSPB, Natural England, the Landmark Trust and the National Trust to exterminate the rats on Lundy Island in the early 2000s, sea bird numbers have been restored to levels not seen since the 1930s. For instance, puffin numbers have increased from 13 birds in 2002 to 375 in 2019. Despite this species management success, the RSPB still argues that management does not work. Its recent research on the response of breeding waders to predation management is arguably flawed, as it did not apply predation management to the level of intensity recommended by professional game and wildlife managers. That meant that it was always likely to be ineffective—possibly, that is what it was designed to be. It was also unethical. If one is going to take one species in support of another, one needs to ensure that one’s approach is effective. Furthermore, if the RSPB claims that species management does not work, I wonder why it is a partner in the project to eradicate stoats, which have been posing a threat to Orkney’s internationally important wildlife since their introduction there in 2010.

The Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust, or GWCT, has proved the RSPB wrong on predation management of wildlife on farms. Thirty years of careful scientific research on its commercial demonstration farm in Leicestershire have demonstrated that numbers of songbirds, and other wildlife numbers across the farm, are significantly higher when there is proper species control than when there is not. It has followed the three-legged stool principle and, with management, songbird numbers have doubled alongside a commercial farming operation.

It is good to read reports of the water vole, better known to some as Ratty in The Wind in the Willows, returning to areas in which it once thrived. They were virtually wiped out, mostly due to predation by mink, which decimated whole colonies. Now, with the successful use of the GWCT-designed mink trap, numbers are rising again, proving that targeted management can benefit a variety of endangered species.

Given that it is so important to improve wildlife numbers, I ask my noble friend why the Government are not introducing a set of funded standards to contribute towards the cost of the management required to aid the recovery of species, especially those on the red list, when there is so much evidence to prove that it works.

The Government have set a good course for the future of farming. It is farmers and land managers who will make it work, or not, within the remit set by Defra. The recent welcome announcement makes ELMS more attractive to farmers to sign up to. However, farmers, as well as producing food, must be required to demonstrate that the taxpayers’ money they receive is producing public goods that make a significant contribution to the environment. Species management can help in that and should be added to the SFI options. If there are no public goods, the Treasury will be much more inclined to reduce Defra’s budget than to increase it. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Green 3:40, 25 Ionawr 2024

My Lords, I begin by thanking the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, for securing this debate and introducing it so comprehensively. It is a great pleasure to follow the noble Earl, with whom I share a considerable passion for soil health and soil quality, which we have often discussed.

I agree in some respects with the noble Earl’s diagnosis of why we are one of the most nature-depleted corners of this battered planet. The Green Party right across the EU has very much led opposition to the common agricultural policy, although the way in which it was applied in the UK seems to have been particularly poor compared with parts of the EU, in terms of environmental and biodiversity outcomes. However, it is important that we add in other causes of the problem and recognise that the Government need to take a comprehensive policy approach.

Just this week, we had a debate in the other place following very strong public backing of the petition to “get fair about farming”. Giant multinational companies hugely dominate our food system, and a handful of companies dominate areas such as factory farming of chickens. That dominance has squeezed farmers’ margins and forced them into farming systems that have done huge damage to the natural world. I put it to the Minister that we are talking about the SFI, and that the Government need also to take action from the other side and make sure that farmers are indeed allowed to manage their land as they would like to.

It is important in this debate that we look at the other context. The Government have been doing trade deals, letting into the UK food with standards considerably below the standards we ask environmentally, as well as animal welfare standards. All these things are acting against what the Government are putting money into through their farming programmes. These issues have to be looked at together.

I shall continue with the theme of the need for a systems approach. We are in a climate emergency and nature crisis; we have exceeded six of the nine planetary boundaries, as identified by the Stockholm Institute. It is in the British countryside where you can really see that happening. We do not talk about this as much as we probably should, but the UN last year pointed out that, in global terms, we have more problems with plastics in our soils than in our oceans, to which a great deal of attention has been paid. Since we are talking about biodiversity in general, according to the terms of the noble Earl’s debate, I was tempted to raise the issue of the biodiversity of our soils and the research conducted in the past year. We have started to realise the extent to which we are losing the biodiversity of the microbiome of the soil. I am aware that the Minister is new, so I am going to be kind and not push too far down this road today—but he can expect more of it in future.

I turn to the overall view of ELMS and the impact it will have on the targets of the Environment Act. I am sure that noble Lords have seen an excellent briefing from the Green Alliance that digs into that issue. It notes that this month’s agricultural transition plan update does not provide evidence of how the actions being encouraged by the update will impact on targets. We need to see how those are joined up. These are the Environment Act biodiversity targets that the Government are legally committed to, yet how do the two things relate to each other? We are not seeing the explanation, the figures or the setting out of that link. We have a list of schemes that will contribute to supposedly delivering the targets, but we do not know how or how much, and we are not seeing an evaluation of how much progress has been made. Is what is being suggested in this update enough to get us where we are supposed to be by 2030?

Even where there is some detail, it did not relate the action to what is currently included in the ELM scheme. For example, in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the biggest single measure identified in the plan is using SFI to reduce emissions through methane-suppressing feed additives for livestock. Yet the use of methane suppressants—however much I might question that—is not incentivised through any ELM scheme. Of course, your Lordships’ House—and the entire country—is acutely aware of the issues around the state of many of our rivers. The focus has tended to be on sewage and water companies but what is happening in terms of nitrogen phosphorous and sediment pollution from agriculture is a big part of the issues in the River Wye and in many rivers in East Anglia.

The Office for Environmental Protection says that the scale of reductions needed to meet the targets in the Environment Act may require

“up to 100% of farmers adopting nature-friendly farming” methods. At the moment, as the noble Earl said, we are at 10%. We have a huge gap here that has not really been set out.

Looking at the context in which we are talking today, we of course have to focus on the recent report from the Office for Environmental Protection, which has to be described—fairly—as scathing. It acknowledges that there has been some progress made in the implementation of the ELM scheme but says that its rollout needs to be vastly accelerated. The OEP says that, overall, it is keeping in reserve the possibility of taking legal action against the Government for failing to deliver on their legally binding targets. That is the context we are in.

We are particularly focused on biodiversity so I will be positive here and welcome the fact that, among the 50 new environmental actions, the Government have introduced agroforestry and restoring water bodies and water courses—and I think, at least to some degree, ponds and mires, which is a really important area that has not had sufficient attention. If the Minister has not visited Wakelyns agroforestry in Suffolk, I would strongly recommend doing so. If you want to see a long-term agroforestry scheme in action, delivering what is visibly and obviously a wonderful level of biodiversity, productivity and diversity in the human diet, I would encourage going to look there.

Agroforestry is an area—I declare an interest, I suppose, as having a fellowship with the Horticultural Trades Association—where we ideally need a supply of locally grown trees from nurseries here in the UK. Perhaps the Minister can comment on how we will ensure that, if we go forward with this agroforestry, we can have locally grown trees suitable for local conditions all around the country—ideally native species, of course—while making appropriate adjustments for the impact of the changing environment of the climate emergency.

I also want to look at enhancing water bodies and water courses. I would be interested in any thoughts that the Minister might have about the restoration of ponds and mires. What we have seen with industrial agriculture—the flattening of hedges and large fields that the way we have administered the CAP has encouraged—is huge amounts of the filling in of ponds, which are absolutely crucial to biodiversity. In East Anglia, there are some really exciting developments whereby old ponds are being excavated, carefully and in the right way, by expert ecologists. They are finding that the seed banks still remain there and, in those ponds, species that we thought had been totally lost from an area are in fact recovering. They are there; we just have to give them the air, light, moisture and capacity to flourish. Are the Government doing enough and providing the advice and support that farmers need for this kind of restoration, which we need to see on a large scale? This also has huge benefits if we think, for example, about flooding and Slow the Flow; it is a really important measure from the perspective of impact benefit as well.

Now I come to a section where, I am afraid, I entirely disagree with the noble Earl: predator control. I am drawing here on the briefing from Wildlife and Countryside Link. It talks about the funding of the management of wild species that prey on farmland birds. Wildlife and Countryside Link says—and I agree—that this is

“a distraction from the core objectives of the scheme. As confirmed in the State of Nature Report of 2023, the decline in the abundance of farmland birds is primarily due to increase in intensive farming practices, not natural predation. Predators are a marginal factor in farmland bird species abundance, for a few species only”.

I accept the RSPB studies that the noble Earl questioned but I would go broader and point to the reason why, in some areas, we have such an abundance of predators. Of course, one of the key factors, which has been increasingly highlighted in recent years, is the massive release of large numbers of game birds, particularly pheasants.

We are talking about a slow, non-native, not-very-well-adapted-to-our-environment feast for our predators, so we have lots of predator numbers. Now, having released those pheasants into our natural environment, we are going to fund farmers to do predator control. There is a very obvious alternative: to stop, or at least massively reduce, the amount of release of food into the environment. Then we will have fewer predators. We might also have a bit more safety on our roads as well, as an aside.

What we need to do, looking at this in a systemic way, is ask what our entire countryside looks like. That is where I have to raise the issue of the land use framework, something long awaited that was dealt with at considerable length, in detail and quality, by a committee of your Lordships’ House. We need a vision of what the countryside should look like. It needs to be a holistic vision that guides the whole ELM and SFI schemes. What we really lack is an overall, long-term strategy.

On briefings, I point to the Nature Friendly Farming Network briefing for this debate, which very much majors on and focuses on the need for a long-term strategy. What we seem to be doing is offering some money for this scheme and some money for that scheme, but where is the picture of what the countryside looks like? We know what the vision of the countryside has been over the past few decades. It has been farms and fields getting bigger, grubbing out hedges and getting rid of trees. That was the vision. Now we are starting to establish a vision where we acknowledge that we need to restore hedges and bring back trees. We need a different kind of environment yet we are still a long way from looking at proper crop diversity—genuine diversity, not just two or three crops on a farm but scores of different crops on a farm. I come back to Wakelyns as an example of what I would say is the Green Party vision for what our countryside could look like and how rich it could be. We need to look at this in a holistic way.

I am almost out of time so I will come to one specific point because I hope that this debate will be a useful way of settling a debate that has been carried on in the media. As part of the rollout of these schemes, the Government said they would maintain the annual farming budget for England at £2.4 billion a year. However, the Guardian has looked at Defra figures and concluded that there were underspends of £110 million in 2021-22 and £117 million in 2022-23. The Government have said that those figures are untrue. It would be useful if the Minister could set out in a little detail, as time allows today, and say from the Dispatch Box whether he believes that that promise of spending has been met.

Photo of Lord Robathan Lord Robathan Ceidwadwyr 3:54, 25 Ionawr 2024

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett. One could say that a farming debate is food and drink to the Green Party—I apologise if that is a mixed metaphor—but she might be interested, or perhaps horrified, to know that I agreed with a lot of what she said in the first part of her speech. I totally disagreed with what she said about predators, but that is another matter. I never cease to be impressed by the breadth of her expertise and knowledge; only today she has spoken on this, her specialist subject, and on both maternity services in England and military intervention overseas. My goodness, she has wide experience and knowledge. Some say that less can be more.

I congratulate my noble friend Lord Caithness on introducing this debate. He raised some really important points, which I shall not repeat. I have a close interest in farming because I have a small farm in the east Midlands, where I live. I intend to use my experiences to illustrate a bit of this debate and give a ground-level, coalface view—again, I apologise for mixing my metaphors. I will make three points.

First, the reduction in farming payments will hit farmers overall and may lead to more big farms rather than smaller ones. While some of this may be sensible—I am no great fan of subsidies; it would be better if there were none at all—if there continues to be a reduction in farm payments, the cost of food will inevitably rise because farmers will pass the costs of their inputs and work on to the consumer. At the same time, more farmers will leave the countryside. If they do, the landscape may be changed adversely. I seem to recall that after the Brexit vote the then Chancellor of the Exchequer said that the farming budget would remain exactly the same after Brexit. That does not seem to be the case, unless the Minister would like to contradict me on that.

My second and more important point is about complexity. I support much of ELMS and everything else, but I am rather keen on planting trees. Unlike the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, around me I see trees and hedges flourishing. I have planted several miles of hedges and acres of trees. I thought I would plant some more because of the England woodland creation offer. This is the letter I got back after my son, who is also very keen on planting trees, sent in an application:

Missing Evidence … It is mandatory to contact your Local Environmental Records CentreHistoric England area team, Local Historic Environment Service … and prior to applying”,

which is bad English. It continues:

“You must allow 28 days … You must … confirm this and … provide … Evidence of checks made for priority habitats … Evidence of checks made for protected species … Evidence of checks made for designated heritage assets and local historic environment records”.

I could go on, but that is quite enough.

The Government want me to plant trees and have offered to help. I want to plant trees—and have planted a lot already—for the landscape, wildlife and environmental improvement. What is the point of all this bureaucratic nonsense dreamed up in a warm office in Bristol or London? Let us get on with planting trees, not filling in 10 pages of nonsense. It deters people and to no good purpose.

My third point is about species management, on which the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, and I disagree. It is not really an interest, but I should declare that in 1995 I was responsible for the Eradication of Mink Bill, which noble Lords will remember clearly. It got nowhere because it was a 10-minute rule Bill in the House of Commons. As my noble friend Lord Caithness said, mink have devastated our riverbanks—not just the water voles, although they are particularly obvious, but species such as kingfishers, because they can get into their nests, whereas otters, for example, cannot. There is some anecdotal evidence that otters are driving mink out. I hope that is the case.

Going back to predator management, when I bought my farm 20-odd years ago, we used to have curlews there every year. It was magnificent to have them on a lowland farm in the Midlands. However, now we almost never see them. The reason is probably not foxes or badgers, because we do not see that many of them, but corvids.

Noble Lords may not know that you need a licence to show that you are allowed to shoot or control corvids. Magpies are very clever birds and easily tamed. If noble Lords watch them over the next couple of months, they will see them working their way down a hedge, poking their heads in and looking for nesting birds. When they find a nesting bird, they destroy it. Each magpie is probably responsible for the destruction of 10 nests, but I do not know, as I have not studied it closely enough. Under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, you need a licence. There is a general licence, but you need to be able to prove that the magpies or crows are causing damage. What is the point of that? Can the Minister confirm that that is the case?

As for grey squirrels, I plant a lot of trees, and in one wood, a third of the trees have been killed by grey squirrels. I trap them. This is legal, I am glad to say; otherwise, I probably would not tell noble Lords. I have caught 14 in traps since Christmas Day and I am catching them all of the time. However, there are still hundreds left. They do so much damage. There are people who challenge the trapping. I ask the Minister: have there been any suggestions that we should make it illegal to kill grey squirrels? We must reduce the number of them if the Government’s ambition to plant more trees is to be realised.

There is a policy move to introduce a contraceptive, which will be useful only for male grey squirrels. I hope that works. Perhaps the Minister could comment on that later. Public sensitivity about killing squirrels is also one issue. I would also say there is some stupidity among the public. If noble Lords do not believe me, they should take their dog for a walk in the park and see what happens if it kills a squirrel in front of a lot of other people.

My real point in this is that there is concern and confusion over general licences and what one can and cannot do. They were all stopped and then restarted in the last couple of years. I return to what I said at the beginning: less—in this case, regulation—is more. We do not need endless regulations and laws to do what is right and humane. Some people will behave badly with or without laws and regulations. We could do with less regulation on the control of destructive species, as well as on tree planting and agriculture as a whole.

Photo of The Bishop of Norwich The Bishop of Norwich Bishop 4:02, 25 Ionawr 2024

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow a fellow tree planter, the noble Lord, Lord Robathan. I give a tree to every person I confirm as a sign of the care of God’s creation. I am grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, for securing this debate. I declare an interest as a member of Peers for the Planet and as a Church Commissioner.

Landowners and conservationists with whom I have spoken have broadly welcomed the changes to the sustainable farming incentive, not only the increased payment rates, which make uptake more attractive, but the new areas of action, the increased flexibility and the promise of a simpler, clearer and faster application service. Let us hope it does what is says on the new, streamlined tin. This better-rounded and more holistic agri-environmental scheme in England will undoubtedly see a greater uptake across all agricultural sectors. The tools are certainly in place to help deliver both sustainable food production and nature recovery.

In particular, I welcome the new emphasis on soil health. Being under our feet, we too often forget it, but soil is perhaps our greatest natural asset and the key to so much nature recovery. I am glad that the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, shares my enthusiasm for soil. Healthy soil supports a range of environmental, economic and societal benefits. These include food production, climate change mitigation and increased biodiversity. These vital soil functions are at risk from poor soil management or inappropriate land use, leading to soil degradation, soil compaction and soil erosion from wind and water. Ecological breakdown of our soils together with climate change are perhaps the primary threats to food security.

Of course, any change to a scheme, or the start of any new scheme, needs the test of unintended consequences, and I see three risks that I would be grateful if the Minister could address. First, I am conscious of the acknowledgment from the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, of the incredible commitment of farmers and the added stresses and challenges of new schemes. With the increased options that are now available through a single application process, will farmers be supported in the uptakes of those applications and given the right advice and support? Can the Minister say what advice and support will be given to applicants, particularly so that this public funding secures the most value and delivers effective environmental outcomes? We do not want to find, in future years, that we have been paying for suboptimal or even perverse outcomes for nature.

Secondly, it is critically important that farmers, once in ELMS, are taken on a journey of increasing ambition for nature. There is a risk that farmers remain on sustainable farming incentives, the lowest level of ELMS, and pick the low-ambition, free-choice, well-funded options that align with their existing farming actions. This will not deliver the widescale change in farming activity needed to restore declining wildlife populations. If we are to progress towards the targets in the Environment Act, we need a more joined-up nature landscape, with wildlife corridors, acknowledgement of the impact of edge effects and some clear understanding of which species we want to protect, recover or thrive. If we want to continue to hear the magnificent call of lapwings, curlews or corncrakes, clear strategies need to be developed across whole landscapes. Yet in all this, there is a risk that high-quality, high-yielding land will be taken out of food production in favour of higher payments for environmental goods. Can the Minister say how the correct balance can be struck that benefits these various competing areas, so that we can maximise both food security and nature recovery?

Finally, ELMS is just one side of the coin when it comes to nature and farming. Funding to encourage nature-positive farming needs to be underpinned by the right level of regulatory baselining to prohibit actions that cause the most damage to nature. However, the announcement by the Government said almost nothing about regulation, other than to review the relationship between Natural England, the Environment Agency and farmers and landowners. This is at a time when EU regulatory legislation protecting hedgerows, soils and watercourses came to an end on 31 December last year. This cross-compliance has now dropped out of UK law, leaving regulatory gaps in these areas. We urgently need a new regulatory framework, starting perhaps with the swift progression of the replacement hedgerow protection proposals that were consulted on last summer; they have yet to be replaced. My final ask of the Minister is for a firm commitment that protections for nature will, at the very least, be maintained this year at the same level as the old regulations.

Photo of Lord Sewell of Sanderstead Lord Sewell of Sanderstead Ceidwadwyr 4:08, 25 Ionawr 2024

My Lords, as a new entrant farmer, I think that there is another kind of endangered species that we have missed here, and that is the farmers themselves. As I have come into farming, lots of people are just leaving it. One of the reasons for that is that we have a sort of existential crisis around what a farmer is.

I would like to shift the debate a bit. I welcome ELMS and the shift away from the CAP to what we have now—I have come in the middle of that transition period—but one of the things that worries me is that we probably almost need to do away with the notion of the farmer itself. I do not even know what a farmer is any more. Because of the way we have set up so-called incentives, we are not really sure what we are doing. What we need to do is think about some of the complex relationships that we have.

I welcome the Rock report—all your Lordships should read it. It is an excellent document and it takes up this real issue of tenant farmers in relation to landlords. We have to deal with that issue. Defra is in there, as are environmentalists. Everyone is thrown into this kind of complex relationship, yet the definition of what a farmer is in a sense becomes problematic.

I would argue that, at the moment, the farmer is almost enemy number one. It never used to be like that. If you raise cows, you are polluting the air. If slurry comes from your farm, you are destroying the waterways. Suddenly, our romantic image of what a farmer is has changed, and in a sense the farmer now becomes the environmental villain in the piece. That is not a great incentive to get into what is a very difficult industry and—I will not be political here from this side of the House— to make money, because at the end of the day, that is the driving force behind this.

There is a need to see this as two things. It is a business, so if you are going to incentivise, you also have to incentivise the market. One of the things we need to do is to redefine farming itself. I would prefer us to be called agri-innovators. I say that because I looked at the amount of money and risk, and at the hedge funds and everybody else who piled into the tech revolution we had recently, where money was poured into start-ups. Strangely enough, with that risk, nobody made a lot of money. When so many of those start-ups came in, we threw money at these alleged tech gurus who came out of university and gave them millions of pounds, but we never saw a return on it. Yet when you look at the farming sector, we do not see any of that kind of incentive in terms of the market.

I would therefore argue, as a good Conservative, that the Government stay out of some of this, and that we need an agricultural sector that is linked to the market and driven by the market. Obviously, there are controls that we need to have. However, as my noble friend rightly said, if you are actually in farming itself—or agri-innovation, let us call it—you are incentivised anyway to control the species. You have to in order to make the thing work. There is a market incentive in doing that.

In addition, what really are we now? I look at the farming community. We probably have some very big agri-industries, and I agree that there are the bigger ones. But what happens with the smaller sectors that I am involved in? We should be doing lots more added value; we should be dealing with agri-tourism. We have to be a little more imaginative. To be honest—I will probably get some pushback here—I think that some of my peers are not very imaginative in the way they are using their farms and the sector. We have to think much more around different ways of doing agriculture, which is not necessarily all about food production; there is education, farming in terms of restaurants and food to table. There are so many other things you can do around this area, which does not just mean trying to load food on to a lorry.

In some ways, I would like the Government to be thinking about helping the industry to become almost much more like the tech start-ups that we had, but perhaps this time with some more incentives. The incentives must be properly around those farmers who are moving innovation and doing things that are different, adding value to their products. That is the new way to go with this, and to avoid this area where new entrants—the few you can get—are coming in, and everybody else is piling out.

What is being left with the land in the end? It is really left to do other things, or bigger landowners come along and gobble you up. There is a need for a different way of doing farming. I ask my noble friend to help us by coming up with models that he could share, on websites or wherever the Government can promote and champion farms and agri-innovations that are doing things that are out of the box and different, and encourage the kind of energy for a younger set to come in. I will be honest: I am 64 and I am one of the youngest people in my sector. It does not seem to be a young person’s game, which is another thing that we must have in this area. We need to think about growing that sector so that it is attractive for young people to come into. That was not the case in the tech sector. We saw the age framework there. I cannot understand why farming cannot have the same kinds of interest and engagement.

Secondly, the sector has to have a link to science. That is why I call it agri-innovation, because the new agri-innovator has to have knowledge of science. You cannot be doing this without that knowledge. It is not instinctive; there is some great technology out there, some great things that we can be applying to the space, and we are not doing that enough. The agri-innovator is geared towards funds coming towards them and having an agri-business, but at the same time the agri-innovator is doing great things in the application of science to agriculture.

By the way, that is what I am trying to do at my place. We are doing great things. Obviously, we are using green technology, et cetera, but you can do lots of things, particularly on agri-tourism, where lots of people now want to come to see, understand and learn, so you are also an education space. So this whole thing has to change. We have a new Minister here and I am sure we will have new ideas coming in, but I am arguing that we should be championing the whole idea of getting a new generation into agriculture via that route.

On ELMS, I agree with my noble friend that I do not really want lots of regulation. People are being very snooty about the market and it working and not working, but we are driving this towards the big incentive, which is “Cash in the bank, please”—because that is really what this is about here, that is the big innovator: “You will take care of your environment”, et cetera. I know that mammon is not the only thing that drives us, but at the same time, it helps. You are coming out of farming because you are not making any money. The reality is that we need a vision and leadership that really sees agriculture as business, as science innovation and as something that we feel that we can actually make money from and get a real job from. So I urge the Minister to address some of these issues and come up with some answers on how he thinks we can make this work so that Britain can once again become a leader in this sector.

Photo of Baroness Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville Baroness Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 4:19, 25 Ionawr 2024

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, on securing this important debate and on his excellent introduction to the subject, and welcome the Minister to his first debate in the Chamber. I am pleased to be able to tell the noble Lord, Lord Sewell of Sanderstead, who is a pleasure to follow, that there is a lot of innovation in science and technology going on in the agriculture industry already.

Every day of every year, the country and its residents ask farmers to perform a miracle. Without this miracle, we simply could not survive as a human population. We ask them to produce the healthy, nutritious and affordable food that sustains us all as a human population. At the same time, we ask them to deliver positive outcomes for the environment, our landscapes and our biodiversity. I have met countless farmers who have decided to ignore the binary choice of producing food or improving the environment. They already embrace a farming approach that seeks to deliver the production of food alongside, and in harmony with, environmental enhancement and biodiversity gain.

There is a great deal of consensus, both within this Chamber and across our rural communities, that this approach is the only way to succeed in future. We cannot deal with the nation’s vital food security without our hard-working farmers. At the same time, it is impossible to rectify the environmental damage that has occurred in recent decades without the help, support and local knowledge that exists within our farming communities.

When first introduced, ELMS had three strands—sustainable farming initiative, local nature recovery and landscape recovery. SFI was a universal scheme available to all farmers and those with land-managing responsibilities. But there have been changes along the way. In January 2023 came the announcement that ELMS would no longer introduce a new local nature recovery scheme. This would instead evolve into the existing Countryside Stewardship scheme. The Government’s rollout of ELMS has been criticised for creating complexity and uncertainty among farmers and other land managers, as was excellently demonstrated by the noble Lord, Lord Robathan.

If the recent changes to SFI announced by the Secretary of State do not underpin this crucially important balance, it will fail. Unfortunately, recent experience with the SFI does not bode well. Since the original launch of the SFI, we have seen flip-flopping after flip-flopping of the measures being incentivised. The constant altering of payment rates and a horrendous underspend have seen farmers’ funding cut by circa 50%, while at the same time their prospects of receiving new funding have become more and more challenging. While there are substantial increases to a few payment options in the January announcement, many are unchanged. There is less than hoped for to attract upland and hill farmers to change their farming practices to deliver more for nature, given that much land is tenanted or common land.

Establishing a single application process to enable farmers to apply for the SFI and the mid-tier Country Stewardship scheme at the same time is welcome. However, the Government have said that this new scheme will be available from summer 2024. The Country Land and Business Association has criticised the Government for not opening the applications for the updated scheme until summer 2024, arguing that farm businesses urgently need more financial support.

It takes six to 18 months to negotiate a Commons agreement, so if the detail is not available until summer 2024, new agreements will not start until late 2025. This is all taking too long. While there are some generous supplements proposed for rewetting and natural flood management, these require farmers and commoners to be able to undertake capital works. But the requirement to defray those substantial costs in advance before being reimbursed remains a major block to moorland restoration. Overall, for the uplands it is too little, too slow and too vague. Historically, this Government wanted to achieve 70% of farmers entering 70% of their land into the SFI. Today, less than 10% of farmers have applied to SFI.

In turn, an annual underspend of over £100 million in such an important policy area is bad enough, but when, in the last few years, over £100 million a year has been taken from the funding that was already going to the very community we are seeking to support, it is almost unforgivable.

The underspending on the farming budget is justly criticised. As part of the rollout, the Government said that they would maintain the annual farming budget for England at £2.4 billion, as has already been referred to. However, as has already been said, the Guardian reported that the figures from Defra indicated that there was an underspend in the Government’s environment farming schemes of £110 million in 2021-22 and £117 million in 2022-23.

I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, for raising the issue of the land use framework. Can the Minister perhaps say when, if ever, it will be published?

I concede that the announcements made by the Secretary of State earlier this month have seen some improvements. For example, increased payment rates for species-rich grassland are welcome and long overdue, but let us be clear: this covers only around 0.1% of farmland in this country. There is precious little in these changes to support biodiversity improvement in the remaining grasslands, which can, if properly managed, become a thriving habitat for many iconic species in this country. I am sure that this House does not need to be reminded that we have lost over 90% of our hay meadows since the 1930s.

This is not about creating a chocolate box vision of a bygone era. Diversity of species benefits so much more than the simple flora and fauna of a field. We are now recognising the importance of multispecies pastures as reservoirs of beneficial predators. The technical term biological pest control, which is standard practice today in more than half of our horticulture production, is, at its heart, little more than the eradication of pest, disease or weed populations by a natural predator, whose population can be encouraged by a richer tapestry of habitats for food production and environment. I am afraid that I see little in the Secretary of State’s announcements in this area.

The NFU has always supported sustainable food production alongside environmental work, provided that domestic food production levels are at least maintained, but the impact of this updated SFI is not clear. For arable farmers, some of the best-paying options are where they take land out of production—the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Norwich referred to this.

On species management, the Government have said that the ELM scheme will support species recovery and management action by farmers, landowners and other managers. The Forestry Commission argues that, although wild deer contribute to the UK’s biodiversity, they can have a negative impact, because they browse on the seedlings and regrowth of certain trees and plant species. Deer populations are currently unsustainable and culling is now necessary. The same applies to the grey squirrel population. The Government have to provide realistic future certainty on a clear and stable ELM scheme, rather than this intensely frustrating drip feed of SFI options.

With 10 Secretaries of State in 13 years, it is perhaps not surprising that the Conservatives have failed to grasp the biggest opportunity in 70 years to recover nature. During the last seven-year period of mismanagement, the Conservatives have, unbelievably, increased core Defra staff almost fourfold, from 1,800 in 2016 to nearly 7,000 in 2023. Investing in nature is good value, and the Liberal Democrats will increase the agricultural budget by an additional £1 billion to ensure that farmers get the fair deal they deserve.

I strongly support using ELMS to support biodiversity, as I have highlighted, including specific management to support populations of endangered species in all habitats across the UK landscape. However, we will not achieve that with the current set of announcements, or without taking farmers with us on a journey where they can be properly rewarded for the vital role they play in addressing the declines we have seen in too many species across the UK. If the current Government continue as they are, with uncertainty and incompetence, before long it may well be the British farmer who becomes the endangered species.

Photo of Baroness Hayman of Ullock Baroness Hayman of Ullock Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 4:30, 25 Ionawr 2024

My Lords, I thank the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, for introducing this debate and for his clear and thorough introduction. As he did, I pay tribute to our many farmers, who have been going through a very difficult time in recent years. I also declare my interest, as laid out in the register, as president of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust.

We know that farming has a major impact on biodiversity and the natural world—the right reverend Prelate laid that out extremely clearly—so it is really important that farmers are properly supported to change how they farm so that they can remain resilient in this time of nature and climate crisis. Noble Lords discussed a number of concerns, some of which were raised by the Office for Environmental Protection earlier this month on progress in the implementation of ELMS. Although some progress has been made, it is clear that noble Lords and farmers feel that its rollout needs to be accelerated. The House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee also found that there was uncertainty about exactly how the scheme would operate. As noble Lords have also mentioned, this has particular challenges for tenant farmers and commoners.

But we broadly welcome the fact that we have an updated transition plan, which is what we needed. This has been welcomed by other organisations. For example, the Agricultural Industries Confederation has welcomed the changes, in particular the streamlining of the process for applications, and the NFU has welcomed the increase of some payments and support for a greater number of actions. However, it has also argued that the Government should provide further details about exactly how the objectives would be delivered. The noble Earl mentioned that in his introduction.

As has also come across very clearly in this debate, the Government need to ensure a successful rollout to properly harness the opportunities for farm businesses, nature and our climate. The CLA, among others, has criticised the Government for not opening applications for the updated scheme until this summer. A number of noble Lords mentioned this. For example, when does summer start and end?

Farm businesses need action and financial support urgently. Nature Friendly Farming sent a very helpful brief, in which it mentioned its concerns that this delay could bring real cash flow problems for farmers. It has asked Defra to explore ways to alleviate this. It suggests introducing a one-off lump sum payment as an alternative to annual delinked payments. Can the Minister say whether Defra has looked at ways to alleviate the bumpy ride that farmers have during this process?

Although we are pleased to see that the changes are largely positive for nature, including the expanded set of actions, the average 10% uplift in payments, increased payment frequency and a commitment to double the number of agreements for more complex and targeted environmental land management, still more needs to be done. The changes will expand the contribution that farmed landscapes make to achieving our nature recovery targets in the Environment Act. However, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Norwich and the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, asked, how are we going to use this to dramatically increase our soil health? That is critical if we are to make real progress.

I should say that I thought it wonderful that the right reverend Prelate hands out trees at confirmations. That is fabulous. I shall talk to our church about doing the same.

It remains to be seen whether the incentives we now have will result in the right level of action at the required scale. Can incentives alone achieve this? If they cannot, there is a real risk that Defra could miss what are pretty ambitious goals.

Although there has been commendable progress on the development of farm payments, this could be undermined by a lack of regulation and enforcement—again, something mentioned by noble Lords during this debate. The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, talked in particular about the lack of evidence to show how ELMS will deliver against the Environment Act targets. Of course, there is no publicly available data to demonstrate how the payment rates have been calculated, how Defra evaluates progress and how value for money is secured. How will these robust rules be established and how will the gaps following the loss of cross compliance be closed? Will the Government publish their analysis of the actions needed under ELMS to deliver the Environment Act targets, as well as any gaps that have been identified? Has Defra considered publishing its scheme payment methodologies, as well as providing a clear payment strategy and the outcomes that are expected from farmers taking the grants?

The 2020 agricultural transition plan included actions to create and maintain habitats but did not include species management specifically. Instead, it is listed as an example of the type of action that would be supported through what was then the local nature recovery scheme. The Government have confirmed that ELMS would support minimising harm caused by invasive species and promote the recovery of threatened native species. I have a particular interest in this, living in Cumbria: we see red squirrels out of our window and there is a real threat from the grey squirrel population in the areas where we are still fortunate enough to have red squirrels.

The case for supporting species management as part of the ELM scheme, brought forward in the Motion today, is advocated by the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust, which argues that not enough focus has been given to species management; I thank it for its briefing on this matter. However, the Countryside Stewardship scheme already includes the control and management of some invasive non-native species; I am sure that the Minister will say the same. We question whether species management should be funded through ELMS, particularly the management of wild species that prey on farmland birds. As we have heard, last year’s State of Nature report concluded that the decline in farmland birds is mainly due to an increase in intensive farming practices, not natural predation. The RSPB has further studied these impacts and found that predator control interventions carried out at the farm level—it is important to have that distinction—are not sufficient to make a difference.

I am aware that there have been challenges to this during the debate but we believe that ELMS should be focused on nature-friendly farming to help meet our nature and climate targets, rather than funding interventions that are already accessible through the Countryside Stewardship scheme. Perhaps extending that needs to be looked at.

Finally, I come to the important point made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Norwich about farmers needing improved support and advice services. The transition from BPS to ELMS is significant and farmers need to be fully supported through this transition. The current advice service, the Farming Resilience Fund, is due to end next year. Can the Minister explain what will replace it?

Photo of Lord Douglas-Miller Lord Douglas-Miller The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 4:38, 25 Ionawr 2024

My Lords, I declare my interests in farming, fishing and land management, as set out in the register. I congratulate my noble friend Lord Caithness on securing this important and timely debate.

I welcome this opportunity to speak about the changes to our environmental land management schemes and the case for including species management within the Countryside Stewardship section. Species management plays an important role in meeting our biodiversity targets. I am grateful for the many thoughtful and knowledgeable contributions that noble Lords have made today; I will return to this point in just a moment.

Given the relevance of this debate, it is worth highlighting how we are seizing the opportunities of moving away from the EU’s inflexible common agricultural policy and implementing our own bespoke environmental land management scheme, as this move constitutes the main element of the agricultural transition plan, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, explained so well just now.

First, and contrary to what was said by the noble Baronesses, Lady Bakewell and Lady Bennett, we are maintaining the £2.4 billion budget for the sector across this Parliament by using money released from the winding down of the basic payment scheme to fund our new set of ELMS modules aimed at improving the environment, productivity and the health and welfare of animals.

As many noble Lords will know, our ELMS modules fall into three main parts. The sustainable farming incentive pays for standard actions that are needed across the farmed landscape to deliver our environmental objectives. Since its launch, we have seen growing uptake for the SFI. As of yesterday, we have received more than 9,300 applications, which is approximately 15% of all farmers. Importantly, feedback from pilot participants has helped to shape the scheme to ensure that it is flexible and works for all farmers across England. As of this month, for those actions already agreed with the Rural Payments Agency, farmers have taken up actions which mean that circa 123,000 hectares of arable land is being managed without insecticides and circa 53,000 hectares of low-input grassland is focused on improving sustainability.

The second part of ELMS, Countryside Stewardship, pays for locally targeted actions relating to the creation of specific habitats and the management of some species. I reassure the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Norwich: Countryside Stewardship schemes have helped to maintain and restore more than 10,000 kilometres of existing hedgerows and to plant an additional 4,000 kilometres across the country.

The third part, landscape recovery, is aimed at farmers and land managers who want to take a more long-term and large-scale approach to producing environmental goods on their land alongside food production. The first round of landscape recovery in 2023 focused on species recovery and river restoration. There were 22 successful projects. Among other things, they target the conservation of more than 260 flagship species. The second round of landscape recovery focuses on net zero, protected sites and wildlife-rich habitats. There are 34 shortlisted projects that will deliver a wide range of environmental benefits, including restoring more than 35,000 hectares of peatland and creating more than 7,000 hectares of new woodland.

At the Oxford Farming Conference earlier this month, the Secretary of State announced an update to the agricultural transition plan. This represents the biggest upgrade to farming schemes since the start of the agricultural transition in 2021. The key message from the Secretary of State, which I reiterate today, is that we are delivering more money, more choice and more trust. On money, we have updated the payment rates for existing SFI and Countryside Stewardship actions, increasing rates by an average of 10% across the board. Farmers will also be paid a premium for certain actions which deliver higher value outcomes.

On choice, we want to ensure that there is something available for every farmer regardless of whether they own or rent their land. We are adding around 50 new actions to our schemes and amending many more after taking feedback from farmers, researchers and stakeholders to improve and expand existing actions, creating the most flexible and comprehensive offer yet. For example, we have added five new actions and amended four existing ones to support the management of rivers and their catchments. These focus on slowing the flow of water through the landscape, thereby helping to reduce the impact of extreme weather events such as those that we have experienced recently.

Importantly, to build trust, we have listened to farmers and want to enable every farmer to access our schemes quickly and simply. We will be streamlining the application process by bringing together SFI and Countryside Stewardship mid-tier applications and exploring how we can simplify the Countryside Stewardship higher-tier application process as well. This and other changes will make it easier for our schemes to slot seamlessly into farm businesses. That will help to ensure that we get the scale and ambition we need to achieve our targets, including having 70% of farmers signed up by 2028.

I know from personal experience that no one cares more deeply about the land, the nature around them or the health of their farm than the farmer or land manager who lives and works there every day. The Government are keen that the relationship between farmers and regulatory bodies moves towards one of working together and building trust, and the guidance from the Government to regulatory bodies will reflect that farmers and land managers are the solution, not the problem, as my noble friend Lord Sewell of Sanderstead suggested. I should add that the Government support a range of innovations, but I shall take away my noble friend’s thoughts on innovation and consider them further.

My noble friend Lord Caithness and other noble Lords asked about the balance between environmental benefits and food production. The Nature Friendly Farming Network is particularly interested in this point too. I know that my right honourable friend in the other place, the Farming Minister, met the Nature Friendly Farming Network on Monday this week. I was delighted to hear that they had a productive discussion on this topic and are working constructively together on potential routes forward.

I turn to species management, which my noble friend and other noble Lords spoke on with such knowledge today. As my noble friend explained, the evidence clearly points to three key functions that support biodiversity: suitable habitat, food source, and predator management. All three will be required if we are to hit our biodiversity targets. The lack of suitable habitat in good condition, and food scarcity, particularly over winter, are two of the primary reasons for species decline. We have many actions within ELM schemes that pay for habitat creation and management, and more are being added later this year. We also have specific actions to provide overwinter food for farmland bird species to boost their recovery.

Alongside those two critical components, we need predator management to support the recovery of certain species and priority habitats. Through Countryside Stewardship we already pay for actions to manage deer and grey squirrels to protect our woodlands, a subject raised by many noble Lords today, as well as the control of invasive non-native plant species such as Japanese knotweed and Himalayan balsam. This year we are expanding these offers to fund management across the landscape, beyond woodlands, and we are increasing payment rates to better reflect the complexity of the management actions that are required.

From this year, for the first time, we will also pay for the management control of edible dormice and American mink. The edible dormouse—a somewhat curious name, which I understand stems from the Romans acquiring a taste for this rodent—were first introduced to the UK from Europe in 1907. They cause damage to trees by bark stripping and ring barking, and they are known to eat fruit crops and compete with hole-nesting birds for nest boxes, and to predate on their eggs.

My noble friend Lord Robathan spoke with great emotion about the American mink, which is a widespread non-native invasive species with a broad diet that includes small mammals. The American mink has heavily preyed on our native water vole population, which is now endangered, as my noble friend mentioned. The key point, raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, and others, is that management of other generalist predators such as foxes, crows, stoats and weasels can and should be undertaken by farmers and land managers in accordance with the general licensing rules, which I appreciate have been a challenging area in the last year or so.

My noble friend Lord Robathan and others asked an important question concerning how we have taken species which are already included under general licences, such as GL38 for stoats, into account. I note that the evidence requirements for permitting the control of a species differ from the evidence requirements to incentivise the management of that same species through our schemes. The latter requires—

Photo of Lord Robathan Lord Robathan Ceidwadwyr

My question really is: why do we need general licences and so on? We know that crows are very destructive, for instance. We have mentioned squirrels, mink and magpies. Why do we need a licence at all, general or otherwise? Is it to keep civil servants working?

Photo of Lord Douglas-Miller Lord Douglas-Miller The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

My noble friend raises a good point. It is the current law of the land. Perhaps I could take that point away and have a further discussion with him at a later stage.

Turning to future plans, I hope to reassure my noble friend and others in the House that, as part of the rolling review process, we will continue to explore whether to include additional species management actions within our schemes. This will involve working closely with stakeholders and farmers to understand specific issues as they emerge. It will keep our offers, including payments, up to date and allow us to respond to farmer feedback and changing scientific evidence to maintain progress towards achieving our biodiversity goals.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Norwich and the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, raised questions about soil. I emphasise that healthy soil, abundant pollinators and clean water are the foundations of our food security; I am sure that they would agree with me on that. The SFI pays farmers to improve and conserve their soils and provide flower-rich habitats for pollinators and other beneficial invertebrates. These actions support the delivery of our environmental objectives; they also benefit food production, by reducing farmers’ reliance on costly artificial inputs.

The noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, raised the issue of the land use framework, which I know is due to be published shortly. I am afraid I do not have an exact date for the noble Baroness, but perhaps I can get back to her on it at a later date.

In conclusion, our agricultural transition plan represents the most significant upgrade to farming support schemes since we gained the freedom to design and implement options that support the unique nature of our countryside. The Government will ensure that we maintain progress towards our outcomes by keeping our schemes under review, while ensuring that our offers reflect the latest scientific evidence and represent good value to both farmers and taxpayers. If I have missed any specific points from noble Lords or noble Baronesses, I will write to them in due course. I thank my noble friend for the opportunity to have this important debate.

Photo of The Earl of Caithness The Earl of Caithness Ceidwadwyr 4:53, 25 Ionawr 2024

My Lords, I am extremely grateful to all noble Lords who have taken part in this debate. I also conscious of my noble friend Lord Robathan’s remark that “less can be more”, so I will curtail quite a lot of what I might be able to say.

However, I want to pick up one point made by the right reverend Prelate. He might not be aware, but it was due entirely to the work of the noble Baronesses, Lady Bennett and Lady Hayman, and myself that we got soil into the environmental improvement plan. It was promised through the soil health action plan. It was the pressure that we put on the noble Lord, Lord Goldsmith, that got the Government to change their view. It is a pity that the soil health action plan was not implemented, because the OEP is having great difficulty in getting any measurement of how soil can be improved.

I am extremely grateful to my noble friend the Minister. Again, we are lucky enough in this House to have a Minister who is experienced in farming and the countryside and who understands the matter probably far more than his civil servants. When it came to his remarks about the difference between management control of grey squirrel and deer and control of other species, I thought he was dancing on a pinhead. His officials need to be kicked pretty blooming hard and told that they need a better argument than that.

The Government have set farmers legally binding targets for 2030, but they are not letting farmers have a full toolbox of measures to tackle that. There is a risk of creating perfect habitats with taxpayers’ money for a whole range of species which would just become population sinks unless there is more help for farmers in protecting those species from predators.

I hope that my noble friend the Minister will take two serious messages back to his Secretary of State and to No. 10. First, we need to get on with SFI schemes. It is no good just saying, “It’s going to be in the summer”; we want it as soon as possible. Secondly, we need more on predator management.

Motion agreed.

House adjourned at 4.56 pm.