Farmers are given free reign to preserve land under new scheme

Wensleydale has been chosen as one of two pilot areas in England to trial a new agri-environment scheme that will see farmers financially rewarded for using their own methods to preserving hay meadows and wetland habitats.

The Yorkshire Dales National Park

A total of 19 farms in the area are taking part in the three-year “payment by results” project, which is being spearheaded by Natural England and delivered in partnership with the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority.

Farmers are being paid for producing species-rich meadows or good quality habitat for breeding wader birds, such as curlew, snipe, lapwing and redshank.

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The payments, in-keeping with all agri-environment (AE) schemes, subsidise the costs to the farmer of managing their land less intensively than they otherwise would to boost profits.

The major difference between the new project and other AE schemes, such as Countryside Stewardship, is that it carries no prescriptions for the farmer.

Instead of following a set of rules, such as strict mowing dates, farmers are free to manage the land as they see fit in order to achieve the best environmental results.

One of the Wensleydale farmers in the pilot, Tom Fawcett, 58, representing CH Fawcett and Sons of Nappa Scar, Askrigg, said: “It’s a good scheme and I hope it succeeds, because it is helping to preserve hay meadows and wetland habitats. There’s not too much red tape and you’re letting farmers get on with it.

“Without this compensation, you’d need to increase your stocking ratio to meet rising costs. That would mean improving the land by draining it, or adding lime or fertiliser.

“I only hope this scheme is carried on. Millions of pounds have been wasted when Environmentally Sensitive Areas schemes have been dropped overnight, with land being improved after the payments stopped.”

The farmers will annually assess the well-being of habitats against a set of agreed indicators to achieve an overall ‘health’ score. From this self-assessment, they can measure their success and set targets for the following year. For meadows, the greater the number of plant species, the higher the payment, ranging from £112 to £371 per hectare. For breeding waders, good results include a high quantity of wet features.

A farmer will be marked down and receive a lower payment, if the land is heavily poached, or cut up because of use of heavy machinery, with payments ranging from £35 to £174 per hectare.

The national park authority’s senior farm conservation officer, Helen Keep, said: “Payment by results is designed to be simpler and more cost-effective than previous and existing agri-environment schemes. It works on the principle that farmers know their land better than anyone, and should not be required to follow prescribed land management methods.”

Professor David Hill, chair of the Northern Upland Chain Local Nature Partnership, which is also involved in the scheme, added: “We’re delighted Natural England is working with the national park authority to test out this innovative approach, which we hope can then be rolled out to other parts of the northern Pennines.”

The Norfolk/Suffolk border has also been selected as a pilot area, where an arable project will delivered.