You may have come across the acronym ELMs, as this is a hot topic in the farming world, but do you know why these schemes are likely to mark a moment of decisive change in British farming?

Environmental Land Management schemes are government initiatives to incentivise sustainable farming practices alongside profitable food production. The objective is to reward farmers for improving the health of their soil, allowing wildlife to flourish and contributing to better air quality.

Three schemes are being introduced between now and 2024: The Sustainable Farming Initiative; Local Nature Recovery; and Landscape Recovery. They are replacing the Countryside Stewardship scheme, which soaked up millions of pounds of taxpayer’s money over two decades whilst failing to reverse the decline in our bird populations, which suggests it failed to encourage healthy farmland.

Take-up of current conservation schemes is around 70 per cent and the government hopes that a similar proportion of farmers will take advantage of ELM subsidies.

This could be a watershed moment in British agriculture – it is the first time a government is explicitly trying to change the way we farm. Many farmers will feel threatened by it because they want to farm the way they have always done, but I think the ELM schemes encapsulate much of the CRT’s philosophy. This is an opportunity to bring our countryside alive.

I am writing in a personal capacity because, despite becoming the CRT’s first tenant farmer in 1993, I am also its sole arable-only farmer and I appreciate that perspectives may differ. No scheme is perfect –and I have concerns about aspects of the ELMs – but it could help us re-think farming methods and re-educate the nation.

Let us start with the positives

Farmers should be credited for promoting wildlife on their land, rather than perceived as ’bad’ because they tolerate weeds. My father’s and grandfather’s generation would not have understood that, because they were conditioned to believe that higher crop yields were the truest measure of a farmer’s worth. Farmers are driven by peer pressure and for 60 years we have been told that weeds in a farmer’s fields are a sign of negligence when, in fact, they are necessary to allow wildlife to flourish.

The aspect of the scheme that excites me most is that it encourages direct drilling. For more than 2,000 years we have ploughed the land by inverting soil to eight or nine inches and, until a few years ago, I would not have believed there was a better way of doing things. But when I began experimenting with different types of cultivation at Lark Rise Farm, Cambridgeshire, I could see the benefits of direct drilling. I began in one field and lapwings returned and started breeding again. By not inverting the soil and instead putting on a cover crop, such as clover, the soil was protected and did not lose its structure, whilst the cover crop put nitrogen back into the soil. Forty per cent of my land is now direct drilled and ELMs will encourage more farmers to do the same by giving grants to buy the equipment.

Now for the negatives

The ELM schemes are more focused on keeping carbon in the soil than protecting birds and wildlife directly, so they are not a complete solution.

There is very little reference to farmland birds specifically; the assumption is that carbon-friendly farming will be bird friendly, but will this be the case? The current option of encouraging over-wintered stubbles, which provide food and habitat for seed-eating birds, will lose most of its support, yet they are possibly the best winter attraction for farmland birds.

Also, I can see no specific mention of rare arable (weed) plants. Without soil cultivation or, even worse, with grass conversions these plants could simply disappear from our landscape forever. My final concern is that if vast areas of our countryside are taken out of production this could lead to more food imports, which would mean less traceability and could encourage over-production in other countries with a devastating environmental impact.

Nevertheless, I hope farmers will give the schemes a chance

Some will be put off by red tape but the biggest barrier will be fears of lower crop yields. The CRT has always argued that weeds are necessary for the food chain and if that means lower yields and lower profit that is a price worth paying, but because farmers spend less on crop cultivation the gross margins are, in fact, similar.

Providing public subsidies to persuade farmers not to prioritise yield over healthy soil that encourages wildlife is a progressive move.

By Tim Scott, CRT Trustee and Tenant Farmer.

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