Government announcements on the environment are like the proverbial London bus. You wait ages for just one announcement, then several arrive all at once.

With more details on both the Sustainable Farming Incentive for 2023, and an Environmental Improvement Plan for 2023 recently released, we are suddenly awash with aims and objectives for nature friendly farming and targets for biodiversity gains. This is a good place to be at the start of 2023.

Anything that aims to improve the woeful state of nature in this country should be broadly welcomed. Prime Minister Richi Sunak says in his opening statement on the Environmental Improvement Plan:

“It is a blueprint not just to halt the decline of nature in our country, but to reverse it – changing the trajectory that the country has been on ever since the industrial revolution.”

Whatever your politics, the sentiment is good, although we can all debate how we got to this point and allowed the UK to become one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world.

What are the headlines within the new EIP? From a farming perspective one of them is the aim to have between 65% and 80% of landowners and farmers adopting nature-friendly farming activity on at least 10 to 15% of their land by 2030. Of course, this target is set up to be achieved by the expanded Sustainable Farming Incentives that are designed to pay farmers to adopt more sustainable farming approaches.

CRT farmer, Bob Felton (above), who runs beautiful Twyford Farm in West Sussex, was hugely optimistic about how this was going to work for him.

“It’s the most positive step in the right direction we’ve had so far. The schemes are much more flexible and the increase in value of the payment is making them worthwhile doing. Overall, it’s more practical and that’s a good thing for the farmer and nature.”

Having the farmer – or enough farmers – onside to make a difference can make or break the Government’s targets on biodiversity that were published in December last year and came off the back of COP15, where we signed up to an international commitment to protect 30% of land and ocean by 2030.

The Environment Act also sets out a target to halt the decline in species populations by 2030 and increase them by at least 10% to exceed current levels by 2042.

Whether these targets are ambitious enough is debatable, but even at their current level they cannot be achieved without farmers, which is why government incentives to encourage more farmers, rather than just those who are already nature-positive to take part, is so vital.

For example, a 30% protection of land and sea would be as difficult as it is desired without farmers. Government statistics show that agricultural land takes up 63.1% of England’s mass, and forestry, open land, and water, occupies another 20.1%. The reason agricultural land is so dominant is essentially twofold. Firstly, we’ve been farming for a long time and in terms of volume have become very efficient at it. Secondly, there is a lot of us, and we need plenty of food.

The CRT has the view that to make a truly effective difference to the biodiversity crisis in our own country, which of course has a positive knock-on effect globally, we must work at improving it on agricultural land. It seems from both the Sustainable Farm Incentive changes and the content of the Environmental Improvement Plan, that the government has woken up to this too.

Creating large areas as nature reserves is important, but without addressing the biodiversity blues on all types of farmed land, from livestock to arable, we won’t hit the important targets that protect the future for everyone. In a nutshell, farmers must play a vital role in averting the crisis.

CRT tenant farmer and trustee, Tim Scott (above), who has been undertaking nature friendly farming techniques at Lark Rise Farm for many years, believes the current emphasis on more balanced farming is both welcome and important. But he is also concerned that, despite the greater flexibility of the Sustainable Farm Incentives, some farmers will need more help to fully embrace the new challenges the SFI’s offer.

“I’ve always been interested in the nature on my farm, but that’s not the case with all farmers. This doesn’t make them bad people, it just means they’ve had different priorities when it comes to managing their farmland. The new schemes will certainly help them to feel better incentivised, but I’d advocate more ongoing advice in terms of what practical measures can be done to improve biodiversity on their land.”

Agricultural land needs to incorporate habitat for all manner of species, maintain important soil health, and reduce the need for pesticides by working with nature rather than against it.  Even if we only achieved these things on 50% of the farmed land in England, it would be a massive step forward. But imagine achieving it on all farmed land and you start to think of the amazing difference it would make to the natural world and, by default, to us.

More microbes, worms, fungi, plants, insects, birds, and animals mean a healthier, richer, countryside. Access to an abundance of natural life on the doorstep of everyone living in the modern world has a huge effect on our well-being – a fact observed during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Plus of course, a healthy soil to grow our food crops is vital. Soil biodiversity is a hugely complex area that not only affects our ability to grow our food, but also to lock up carbon, suppress pests, and filter rainwater.

Farming and its relationship with nature is at something of a crossroads or perhaps a transition. Producing food at levels that guarantees our food security is always going to be hugely important, but making biodiversity gains on all farmed land is not a compromise, it’s a necessity.

nature to thrive alongside it, isn’t just a fad or a nice to have option, it’s a vital part of the fight to protect everything we need to function – water, air, and food. It all exists because of biodiversity. Finally, even the policymakers are realising this and beginning to understand the need for change.

At the most obvious level think of the pollinators that ensure we can continue to grow our food, and plants swapping carbon for the oxygen we breathe. Biodiversity is the planet’s glue. It makes everything work and if we continue destroying it, we are simply speeding up the demise of our own species.

Whatever science can achieve, it cannot replace a thriving, diverse, healthy ecosystem that ensures our planet functions effectively. Right now, this network of nature – from tiny microbes to large mammals – simply isn’t working as it should and what’s broken must be mended. To get things back on track, agriculture has to make this transition and find the thing the CRT has been advocating for 30 years – a balance that allows both sides of the rural coin to co-exist.

For centuries we’ve successfully farmed our land, and we need our farmers to continue to provide everyone with good, healthy, and affordable food. But we must also make great strides to tackle the biodiversity threat by ensuring farms aren’t just vast wildlife no-go zones, devoid of the mosaic of life that underpins our very existence.

Greater awareness of, and involvement in nature friendly farming, is one of the most important ways we can help regenerate the countryside for generations to come. For some time, we have been working hard to assess and make plans for our farms to ensure that we are doing our part to help address the biodiversity crisis. Where we feel we’re not achieving enough, we will not hesitate to make changes that drive us in the right direction.

If you would like to do your part for nature friendly farm, become a Friend of the CRT today.