A new approach to agri environment payments is being trialed in England, as policymakers seek to design schemes to replace the existing Basic Payment Scheme.

According to Vicky Robinson from Natural England, the body which advises the UK government on environmental policy, over 3,000 farmers are involved in 60 “test and trial” schemes at present.

Robinson has been working on “payment by results” schemes, where farmers are paid for delivering specific environmental outcomes. This approach differs from previous agri environment schemes where farmers were paid for carrying out certain actions, regardless of their outcome.

“In a results-based approach, the farmer has complete flexibility and freedom to choose how they deliver the results. It provides motivation, especially if there are step payment rates, to gain recognition and reward,” she said.

Phased out

The current plan is for Basic Payments to be gradually cut in England over the next seven years, with the unspent money mainly put into new schemes for “environmental and animal welfare outcomes”.

By 2024, over half of the total farm budget in England will be set aside for these new schemes and the Basic Payment Scheme is due to be phased out entirely in 2027.

Speaking at an online NI Institute of Agricultural Science event, Robinson outlined four habitats that are currently being trialled for payment by results, namely species-rich hay meadow, grassland for waders, pollen and nectar, and winter bird food.

In the wader grassland option, Robinson pointed out that the desired results relate to the structure of the habitat, and not the presence of actual birds.

“The idea is that you measure things which are in the control of the farmer, and obviously the presence of birds is not something that is entirely within their control,” she said.

In the winter bird food scheme, arable farmers are paid to grow plants that produce small seeds during the autumn and winter months.

To assess the habitat, farmers are required to count seed heads within 10 sample 1m2 areas and this is then verified by a Natural England adviser. There are six payment tiers which depend on the number and type of seeds in the sample area.

Scheme comparison

The farmers who took part in the results-based trial were also part of the existing Countryside Stewardship Scheme in England, which is a traditional action-based scheme.

Robinson said that the winter bird food plots under the results-based trial turned out “statistically better” than the corresponding Countryside Stewardship plots.

“Farmers told us they were making different management decisions on the payment by results plots, because if they didn’t do what was required, there was a risk they wouldn’t get the top payment rate. With the Countryside Stewardship plots, the view was ‘you are going to pay me anyway’,” she said.

However, Robinson acknowledged that the payment by results approach is not necessary for all types of habitats in agri environment schemes. She gave the example of grass margins in arable farms, where results are unlikely to vary from farm to farm.

The results-based approach is still under trial and policy-makers are currently looking at how the approach could be extended to more farmers while minimising administration requirements, and how habitats should be assessed for payments.

“There are quite a few questions that still need to be answered. Payment by results is still very much in the mix for some of the new schemes but it’s not known yet what element it will fall into and what it will look like,” Robinson commented.