The government should scrap the “Brexit bonus” that would have paid farmers and landowners to improve naturein what wildlife groups call an “all-out attack” on the environment, the Observer can reveal.
Instead, sources from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) have revealed, they are considering paying landowners an annual flat fee for every hectare of land they own, which would be similar to the much-maligned EU basic payment scheme. of the common agricultural policy.
Conceived by former Environment Secretary Michael Gove, the Environment Land Management Scheme (Elms) was built to encourage farmers to create space for rare species, including waders and dormice, and to absorb carbon to help England reach its net-zero target. . Pilot projects have created rare habitats and brought back species including nightingales, beavers and storks.
Now landowners and land managers who have been part of Elms have the Observer that meetings with the government about their country have been removed from the agenda as the plan is interrupted.
Defra sources confirmed that Elms’ measures are under review and area payments are on the table.
Daniel Zeichner, Labor MP for Cambridge and shadow agriculture minister, said this was a “complete betrayal of something they said would be one of the main benefits of Brexit”. Many farmers had changed the way they used their land because of Elms’ impending demands.
He added: “Any reversal of the scheme would be deeply disruptive to the industry; we agreed with its broad direction, although we felt the government acted too quickly.
“This is a complete step back from their promises, and to tear it up without any deliberation would be nothing short of mindless vandalism.”
Prominent Conservative Ben Goldsmith, a former Defra board member, said he was disgusted by the plans. He noted: “There are rumors that the government is considering reviving an old subsidy scheme, where landowners across the country are paid per acre of land they own, no matter how well they take care of it. In 2022 – certainly not.
“A system governed by the principle of: public money (only) for public environmental good is a much better idea than unconditional subsidies for landowners. Let’s hope the government sticks to the course.”
Wildlife groups will revolt against the move. Craig Bennett, CEO of the wild animals Trusts, which has 860,000 members, said: “They don’t have a democratic mandate to do this, it was in the election manifesto. What you’ve seen over the past week is that the Liz Truss government is basically nullifying all environmental commitments that were in the 2019 manifesto.
“If this government now goes back to area payments, it will have ditched that one silver lining around Brexit that might have been good for the environment. It appears that there is an all-out attack on the environment under the Liz Truss government.”
Shaun Spiers, executive director of Green Alliance, said: “I can’t believe a government committed to ‘the most ambitious environmental program in any country on Earth’ would be so reckless with taxpayers’ money. It would make the budget look like a model of prudence and caution.”
Isabella Tree, who runs the Knepp Estate in Sussex, is set to undertake one of the government’s flagship landscape restoration projects. Her area is a pioneer of wildlife-friendly farming and receives funding for wildlife restoration, and she is the author of arguably the world’s best-known rewilding handbook, Wilding.
She said: “Elms has spent four years thinking deeply about the future, millions of hours spent by thousands of people from all sectors, about how we can reform land management so we don’t destroy the systems we depend on, so we have an agronomy, a land base. and natural resources that will sustain us for future generations.
“For once, there was a long-term vision from the government. And to think that all that effort and all that time and dedication and deep understanding is just thrown aside, faith begs.”
The National Farmers’ Union opposes plans to pay farmers for conservation schemes rather than food production.
Minette Batters, the NFU president, welcomed the departure from Elms. “My absolute priority is to ensure that farmers can continue to produce the country’s food – so I support maintaining direct payments to build a scheme that will really contribute to food production and the environment,” she said.
A spokesperson for Defra did not deny that the change would take place, saying:
“To boost the rural economy, food production and our food security, we will continue to support farmers and land managers by reviewing agricultural regulations and boosting investment and innovation in the sector.”