CUMBRIA'S lowland farmers will lose out in a new scheme announced by Government, it is claimed.

A charity boss says Defra has broken promises to producers who farm Cumbria's coastal marshes when they launched an early roll out of the Sustainable Farming Incentive from 2022.

All unimproved grasslands – some of our most precious habitats for wildlife - are to be excluded from SFI22 under today’s proposals. This is despite Defra’s commitment that all BPS applicants would be able to apply including those in existing Stewardship Schemes.

Dr Julia Aglionby, Executive Director of the Foundation for Common Land, and Armathwaite farmer,commented; “This is a broken promise by this Government. The Agricultural Transition Plan says; ‘Initially, all farmers currently in receipt of the Basic Payment Scheme will be eligible [for SFI], including those already in land management schemes such as Countryside Stewardship.’ This is clearly not true if you farm unimproved grassland. Our concern is that these most special places will be at risk as farmers come under pressure due to declining incomes as BPS is phased out. Lowland Commons deliver so much for nature, climate, and people especially as shown during Covid; why would you disadvantage them?”

Much of our lowland unimproved grassland is Common Land including the 20,000 ha of the New Forest as well the Malvern Hills and Minchinhampton Common, Devon’s heathlands and Cumbria’s coastal marshes.

The farmers and commoners managing this land, like all farmers, will be losing their BPS over the next seven years but unlike farmers on improved grassland, arable land and moorland they will not have the opportunity through SFI22 to be rewarded for public goods not yet paid for by existing Stewardship Schemes.

This shows a lack of imagination by Defra. There are six baskets of public goods that Defra can pay for yet the focus for SFI22 appears to be limited. A SFI Standard could have been offered for many public goods without double funding, e.g. for improved organic matter, natural flood management, water quality, heritage and landscape.

"When questioned about the gap in provision Defra responded that these farmers would be encouraged to enter Countryside Stewardship which they say is better suited to these habitats than SFI22. Given most of these areas are already in HLS or CS this is a hollow suggestion. You cannot be in Stewardship twice at the same time or paid for the same outcome twice,” said Dr Aglionby.

Mark Bridgeman, President of the Country Land and Business Association (CLA), said: “The CLA has consistently argued for higher Countryside Stewardship payments, and called for Environmental Land Management (ELM) payment rates to be high enough to attract support from farmers across the country. It appears that Government is listening.

“We welcome Government’s ambitions to roll out ELM schemes early in the transition, providing certainty and clarity to farmers who may already be struggling with reductions to their BPS payments.But a word of caution. Many farms have not even started to plan for the major changes that reductions to direct payment will cause. This is especially the case on small farms that have less ability to diversify or intensify.”

“If Government genuinely seeks improved environmental outcomes from the agricultural sector then it needs to ensure farming enterprises can survive and thrive in the first place. It is vital that Government does all it can to support these businesses now and in the long term, incentivising farmers properly to embrace the full spectrum of ELM schemes and early notification of farming investment grants and advice programmes."