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Farmland rewilding: Perspectives on the Environmental Land Management scheme

Published on March 01, 2022

By Dr Liz Lewis-Reddy, Fiona Tweedie, Dr Stephanie Wray and Jon Davies

In early January 2022, the government announced more details on the Landscape Recovery policy of its Environmental Land Management scheme. Specialists from across the RSK group in the fields of biodiversity, natural capital and farm management offer their perspectives on the policy in practice.

The government’s vision for post-Brexit, sustainable farming in England centres on creating a food production system that works alongside environmental protection and restoration measures. The Environmental Land Management scheme (ELM) is translating this vision into practice through three new complementary schemes for farmers and farmland. The Sustainable Farming Initiative (SFI), Local Nature Recovery scheme (LNR) and Landscape Recovery scheme (LR) aim to pay farmers to deliver sustainable farming practices, create new habitats for nature recovery and make landscape-scale change such as establishing new woodland and restoring ecosystem services. The Landscape Recovery scheme, in particular, would appear to offer opportunities for biodiversity restoration and rewilding, that is, recovering and restoring landscapes within farmland and supporting threatened native species in those areas.

The importance and value of implementing environmentally conscious restoration and regeneration initiatives on natural landscapes across the country is becoming increasingly apparent. Such actions enable the revival and protection of vital ecosystem services and make a significant contribution to mitigating climate impacts. Across the country, farmland presents a great opportunity to address a number of environmental challenges: data from the World Bank show that 71% of the UK land area is used for agriculture. With such a large portion of land under agricultural management, ELM offers the potential for farmers to diversify production by being paid to deliver environmental projects and public goods alongside the generation of high-quality food.

In the farming context, the rewilding projects that will bring the greatest value will not be those high-profile, large-scale reintroductions of apex predators, of which there will be very few, but rather those that focus more closely on co-benefits and the regeneration of landscapes to support a thriving and diverse environment in combination with food production. Shifting from a solely production focus to one that includes vital ecosystem services will support efforts to regenerate and rewild at the same time as delivering biodiversity, climate mitigation, other co-benefits and food.

The introduction of the ELM policy is a positive move towards supporting this transition. The tiered access provided by the policy is designed to offer this opportunity at different levels and scales; there is provision for both on-farm and local area actions, and larger, landscape-scale projects. The LR scheme offers an opportunity for landowners and farmers to apply for funding to support the implementation of restoration and regeneration projects. However, from the farm perspective there are potential challenges and constraints to making the most of this.

At present, the scheme is not accessible to tenants, who represent 33% of England’s agricultural area. Disqualifying those who farm on tenancy arrangements prevents a significant portion of England’s farmlands contributing to restoration through this scheme, although DEFRA is looking into this potential barrier. There is also the further challenge that elements of the policy require large-scale land use change. These projects must cover 500 to 5000 hectares, significantly greater than the 87 ha average size of a farm in England; it is the economy of scale that will make them cost effective. Also, although there are bespoke examples of the potential for marketisation in these types of projects, and the possibility for income related to biodiversity and carbon offsets, water quality improvement, flood mitigation, etc., roll out at national scale is untested. Ultimately, the decision to invest land in restoration and rewilding will depend on the profitability of such a change; if there is a limited market, engaging with rewilding opportunities remains high-risk.

As a result, attention needs to be paid to making multifunctional land management effective, that is, ensuring food production and environmental co-benefits can work together while also ensuring that the co-benefits are marketable and represent a valuable business opportunity. Without this, there is a risk that the scheme will be attractive only to those few who have the financial means to shift the focus of land management away from established markets, and this will leave behind most of the farming sector and the bulk of the opportunity.

Shifting the focus to a results-based system that creates a market for the delivery of rewilding and ecosystem services as goods will open up greater opportunities. A recent project undertaken by ADAS, in collaboration with the Welsh Wildlife Trusts and local landowners, to develop a Payments for Ecosystem Services (PES) model for the Pumlumon Mountain area in Wales highlights the value of ecosystem services (ESS) as goods. The model sought to facilitate mid- to long-term agreements between landholders in the region and buyers for a specifically defined ESS. The land managers were paid to provide the service; this included payments from the regulatory authority for flood risk reductions and from companies making offsetting payments for land management practices that included carbon sequestration and biodiversity gain. The success of introducing these measures to protect local catchments, increase carbon sequestration and protect biodiversity in the area was dependent on the marketisation of these services as goods

Taking a results-focused approach will be an important determiner of success in the farmland context. Such a focus also presents solutions to a further challenge concerning access to the scheme: land area. A portion of the funding available from the government requires large areas of land of at least 500 ha, again far greater than the average farm holding. By clustering farms together, it is possible to overcome this challenge while focusing directly on regionally beneficial outcomes. There are opportunities for utilising economies-of-scale thinking, in which larger-scale projects are not only more cost effective, but also offer potential for a more robust supply of marketable environmental goods such as biodiversity offsetting, flood protection or water quality improvement.

Every farm will be different, and the key will be to develop a bespoke approach that best fits the location, the environment and the agricultural context.

The ELM represents a move forward in efforts to utilise England’s natural landscape to support environmental regeneration and rewilding efforts without compromising food production. Although there are notable challenges regarding its implementation, there are also solutions to enable farmers and landowners to make the most of the opportunities presented by a new agricultural system that works with nature to deliver environmental and climate actions.

Dr Liz Lewis-Reddy is Director of ADAS Policy and Economics and Fiona Tweedie is Senior Agri-Environment Consultant at ADAS Agriculture and Land Management, providing leading agricultural research and consultancy services.

Dr Stephanie Wray is Managing Director at Nature Positive, which offers corporate biodiversity risk assessment for infrastructure projects and organisations.

Jon Davies is Head of RSK Wilding; he founded the business in 2020 to optimise the power of rewilding to restore natural landscapes and species populations.

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