Drones to monitor wildlife schemes and local advisers to help farmers with issues such as animal welfare should form part of the future regulation of farming, a review suggests.
Leaving the European Union, where a one-size-fits-all rules-based approach for agriculture is inflexible and “pernickety”, would allow for a shake-up of the way farms are regulated, the review by Dame Glenys Stacey says.
Such is the complex nature of current regulation that farming and land management is the subject of 172 separate pieces of legislation. Five government bodies oversee farming and land management and, including local authorities, make 150,000 farm visits each year. Despite this, the total number of farms in England, estimated at 107,000, is not known by the Government.
The report, commissioned by Environment Secretary Michael Gove, recommends a new independent regulator is brought in as soon as possible, one that would be supportive of farmers’ individual circumstances, offer practical advice and hold a single register of all farms in England.
The regulator should deploy local staff to deliver services such as advice to farmers on topics such as biosecurity, soil quality and animal health and it could incentivise good practice, for example through fewer or less comprehensive inspections for farms with a good record, or for those who are certified by a recognised assurance scheme.
The review recommends increasing use of technology such as drones or high-resolution satellites to check compliance with environmental schemes. Technology could also help with remote surveillance of issues such as unregistered pigs or poor slurry management without so many on-foot inspections or lengthy journeys to remote areas.
Although on-foot inspections may become fewer, the review identifies the importance of surveillance visits continuing to counter disease risk. Some 45 per cent of farm visits are used to monitor or control bovine TB.
Dame Glenys Stacey said farmers were currently subject to a number of “pernickety and sometimes nonsensical rules” and that a culture of fairness was needed.
“There is little practical advice or guidance given to ensure compliance. Instead, automatic financial penalties have become the norm when at times they are unfair,” she said. “The large majority of farmers want to farm responsibly but some need guidance, advice and support to do that.
“A regulator should provide that, and explain why any change on the farm is needed. Yes, sometimes swingeing sanctions are justified, but more often, more is achieved by a more supportive approach.”
The review also calls for a periodic “state of the nation” report that assesses farming’s performance to be published to better target advice to farmers.
Dame Glenys added: “There is so much scope to regulate more effectively, by harnessing technology and local knowledge.
“A strong regulatory culture brings many opportunities - from getting on top of systemic issues such as animal diseases, to improving plant health and our environment under the new farming system.”
She said farming productivity also stands to benefit.
Environment Secretary Michael Gove responded to the report, saying: “It’s clear that current regulation isn’t working as it should. We commissioned this report because leaving the EU gives us the opportunity for a fresh and modern approach - one that is less onerous for farmers and also helps us to deliver on our environmental ambitions.”
The Government will launch a public consultation in response to the review in the new year.