“We have an opportunity to create a Restoration Economy to deliver UK Government’s ambitions for 500,000-hectare ‘Nature Recovery Network’. This could be achieved in 5 or 6 years with the added bonus of delivering economic benefits to a new set of skilled labour in the rural environment” Environment Bank Chairman David Hill and former farm manager Chris Clark wrote in a piece for the Revitalization Journal this week.
Despite the critical role of subsidies in the survival of farms, it is widely accepted that the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) has been a main cause of biodiversity loss through promoting the production of cheap food. Some £3.2bn of public subsidy has been spent annually to support a major loss-making industry that has significantly damaged our biodiversity and cultural heritage.
Once the UK leaves the EU, after a transition period, these subsidies will no longer be available. Without subsidies, the economics of farm production are not likely to improve unless food prices increase significantly, which would be politically damaging even if sensible for farmers in every other respect.
It is the Government’s intention that post-Brexit the old-CAP money will be paid out to farmers entirely for delivering environmental goods and services, for example by restoring biodiversity at scale. These funds, alongside others (such as from biodiversity offsetting and, potentially, corporate natural capital accounting) should be used to build a Restoration Economy, a move that would transform how the countryside looks.
Reversing the devastating impacts of industrial farming by providing farmers with a proper income stream secured via locally relevant, 25-year contracts in accordance with a management plan for their farm, would stitch back the fabric of the British countryside and provide farmers with a good living.
Farmers will need effective long-term contracts commercially priced to offer core incentivisation to the land manager, simple administration, lack of complexity around compliance, and flexibility ie without rigid rules.
Upland farms offer great opportunities for restoration
We already know that upland farmers are in trouble. Upland farms are a special case since they can only grow livestock and analysis of their individual farm accounts has shown that upland farmers believe increasing stock numbers enables them to generate more produce and therefore more profit.
In reality, a decrease in stock numbers has shown to improve margins or at least mitigate some losses.
This offers huge opportunities for biodiversity restoration as the uplands are also amongst the most biodiversity-rich areas of the UK, holding core concentrations of iconic species such as breeding Curlew, Redshank, Lapwing, Merlin, Ring Ouzel, Twite, Red and Black Grouse, as well as upland hay meadows, peatlands, blanket bog and upland heaths.
Many farmers, especially in the uplands, are at financial breaking point. Increasing stocking densities only creates more financial burden. Leadership is required to turn the need and desire to restore the countryside and the biodiversity it should contain, into an investment opportunity using the money that is currently paid to subsidise unsustainable farming systems.