As the process of changing from an European agriculture policy into a UK one starts, I’m delighted to publish a guest blog by former Natural England grassland specialist Steve Peel. Steve looks at how successful agri-environment schemes have been (in England) and how they could be improved.
The state of UK nature
‘Our wonderful nature is in trouble and needs our help as never before’. So wrote Sir David Attenborough in the foreword to the State of Nature report (Hayhow et al, 2016). The report went on to say ‘Many factors have resulted in changes to the UK’s wildlife over recent decades, but policy-driven agricultural change was by far the most significant driver of declines’.
Yet 30 years ago agri-environment schemes were initiated across the UK with the specific intention, amongst others, of halting and reversing such wildlife declines. And these schemes were expanded over that period such that they were generally recognised as among the most ambitious in Europe. In England alone payments to farmers in these schemes have been approximately £400 million per year since 2005. So have these schemes been ineffective and if so, why? At this time, when post-Brexit policies are being formulated, the answers to these questions are crucial for the future state of nature.
Critiques of agri-environment
Ecologists have been publishing studies and critiques of schemes for many years. These tend to be at a European scale. Kleijn et al (2006) concluded that schemes gave only marginal or moderately positive effects on biodiversity and that it was not possible to tell whether this was due to the measures being ineffective, sub-optimally implemented by farmers or applied in the wrong location. Batary et al (2015) concluded that the general lesson is that schemes can be effective but are expensive and need to be carefully designed and targeted.
In his very engaging British Ecological Society presidential address in December 2015 Bill Sutherland suggested that 34-58% of agri-environment interventions were ineffective, with resultant squandering of significant amounts of money and effort on well-intended but ineffectual and largely untested land management interventions. This was a global critique but the audience may have concluded that UK schemes have a weak science base. Consequently Clare Pinches and myself gave presentations at BES December 2016, seeking to explain the schemes in more detail.
Species-rich grassland options – design
We focused on Higher Level Stewardship (HLS), launched in 2006 and aimed at maintaining and restoring high-value environmental features. Grassland options and their associated supplements represent over 40% of the total spend on HLS and we used as our example the HLS options for restoration and creation of species-rich grassland. The design and targeting of these options was based on a long series of experiments and surveys within the Defra Agri-environment R&D programme and summarised by Pywell et al (2012). This showed that:
- The main abiotic constraint on restoration is soil nutrient status, particularly phosphorus (P). Hence the options were targeted at sites with low P and/or other characteristics imposing stress.
- The main biotic constraint is lack of seeds and suitable establishment niches. Hence the scheme funded the whole cost of seed purchase and the option guidance stressed that seeds usually need to be introduced and sufficient bare soil needs to be created.
These options can work brilliantly: in 2010/11 Natural England advisers identified 73 sites that they thought had been most successful and these were independently surveyed (Hewins, 2013; Wilson et al, 2013). Most were creation rather than restoration. Eighty five % met or exceeded the minimum threshold to qualify as BAP Priority Habitat and typically this took 8-15 years.
But what do independent surveys of random samples of agreements show? Creation of species-rich grassland from arable appears to have been much more successful than in earlier schemes. But restoration of existing grassland, on which we have spent ten times as much (£113 million), has been very disappointing – see table 1.
|Table 1. HLS Option HK7 Restoration of species-rich grassland.
Change in condition 2006 to 2014
|Condition remained the same||66%|
|Source: Monitoring project LM0443 – awaiting publication|
After 8 years in an option specifically designed to restore species-richness, with payments of at least £200/ha/year, less than a quarter had improved in condition, and some had actually declined. Likely reasons for these poor results are that 27% of the sites had a P index of 2 or more – higher than optimum. And most importantly 81% of sites had no record of seeds being introduced. This sample was of agreements set up in the first year of HLS and might be ascribed to teething problems, but similar issues were identified in later agreements eg Mountford et al 2013.
Generic quality problems
There were concerns about the quality of HLS delivery from the start in 2006 and these were recognised by the Making Environmental Stewardship More Effective (MESME) project in which 18 recommendations on quality were agreed by Defra (Natural England, 2013). These included the need for:
- Better agreement set-up, more tailored to the site. (Includes choice of site, and need for seed).
- Better QA, including peer review by experienced colleagues and national in-house monitoring of quality (c.100 agreements/ year).
- Better aftercare: regular visits Assess progress, feedback to agreement-holder, record results, follow through, c. 5% of visits with an experienced colleague.
Boatman et al (2014) studied HLS outcomes and the relationship with adviser input. They found, as did Mountford et al, that performance was good for many of the metrics, with the majority of agreements working well. But this covered all outcomes including, for example, historic environment and landscape. The situation was less satisfactory for the more demanding biodiversity outcomes such as on grassland. There were positive correlations between outcomes and:
- the quality of the agreement set-up
- agreement holder knowledge
Seventy-one percent of agreement holders said that the advice they had received had been important or very important to the successful delivery of their HLS agreement. However, many agreement holders were concerned about the number of changes in project officers. In 7 years only 24% of agreements had kept the same adviser, and 23% had 3 or more advisers.
A telling comment made in that report was ‘Lack of follow up visits and changes in adviser personnel led to a sense among agreement holders that early expectations in terms of support were not fulfilled throughout the life of the agreement. In some cases this led to increasing disillusionment and declining commitment as the agreement progressed’.
Learning the lessons
Lawton et al (2010) concluded that England does not have a coherent and resilient ecological network and that we need ‘more, bigger, better and joined’ core sites. In response government said ‘We want to promote an ambitious, integrated approach, creating a resilient ecological network across England’ (Defra, 2011). This intention has recently been reiterated (Natural England, 2016) and since over 70% of England is agricultural land much of the restoration, creation and management of sites will have to be done by and with farmers.
The evidence from HLS shows that even if we have a farming scheme soundly based on science it will not work well enough unless quality is inbuilt and it is managed and resourced sufficiently to sustain a relationship of trust between adviser and land manager.
The signs are that Natural England and Defra are not keen to be open and honest about this evidence:
- There has been no follow-up reporting on the MESME recommendations to improve the quality of agreements: no reports on the internal QA, no reports on aftercare.
- The written submission to House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee on the Future of the natural environment after the EU referendum (UK Parliament, 2016) quoted positive impacts on landscape character – a relatively straightforward outcome to achieve – and showed that the scheme (mainly arable options) has the potential to have national-scale effects on avian population growth rates. But it, and the witness evidence by Rob Cooke, was silent on the biodiversity objectives of the HLS grassland, moorland and other habitat options on which two thirds of the budget have been spent.
- Giving evidence in July 2017 to the House of Lords select committee on the NERC Act, Alan Law (NE Strategy Director) did not take the opportunity to correct this (UK Parliament, 2017).
The story of agri-environment since 2005 has been one of tragically unfulfilled potential. Basic objectives have, as in predecessor schemes, been widely achieved: grassland and other habitats not ploughed up or agriculturally improved, landscape features such as stone walls and buildings maintained and restored, grassy margins round arable fields created. And there are many examples of much more challenging objectives being achieved. But there are also many, many examples of agreements which do not reach the standards required to deliver the Lawton vision. On arable land this is often because uptake of the more demanding options has been too low. In contrast on grassland, where over 40% of the HLS budget has been spent, uptake of demanding options has been high but outcomes have often been woefully poor.
This should not be seen as an indictment of NE advisers – they are committed and hard-working. But they have not been appropriately deployed. When HLS was launched in 2005/6 they were told to go out and make sure they spent the budget. This resulted in many agreements being rushed through. Even once the scheme was more embedded the message from above was very much focused on number of agreements and area of land covered with far too little focus on quality when setting up agreements. This might not have mattered so much if there had been adequate aftercare but the HLS design, which was based on 3 visits in 10 years with Indicators of Success assessed on each visit, was not delivered. Some agreements were not visited at all until it was too late to change the outcomes. And that was before the major staff cutbacks of recent years.
This matters because not only is the same thing happening with the new scheme, Countryside Stewardship, but it is likely to happen all over again in any post-Brexit scheme. The sort of outcomes required to deliver Lawton – create new habitat, restore and extend existing habitat – require skills which are not part of commercial farm practice, as well as timeliness and attention to detail. Expecting this to be achieved on the scale required with the resources deployed in HLS, let alone the current reduced resources, is unrealistic. Yet that is what policy-makers and ministers will expect unless the evidence of past delivery is made so crystal clear to everyone that they cannot risk repetition. And, crucially, if the necessary resources are not available then instead of spreading them thinner and thinner and failing to deliver in many places, admit it and at least deliver good value for money in some places. This is surely what is required of ministers and public servants: openness and honesty (Committee on Standards in Public Life, 1995).
Batary, P, Dicks, L.V, Kleijn, D & Sutherland, W.J. 2015. The role of agri-environment schemes in conservation and environmental management. Conservation Biology, 29, 4, 1006–1016.
Boatman, N. et al 2014. Agreement scale monitoring of Environmental Stewardship 2013-4: Assessing the impact of advice and support on the environmental outcomes of HLS agreements. Natural England Contract reference LM0432.
Committee on Standards in Public Life 1995. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/the-7-principles-of-public-life
DEFRA 2011. The Natural Choice: securing the value of nature. CM8082.
Hayhow D.B. et al 2016. State of Nature 2016. The State of Nature partnership.
Hewins, E. 2013. A survey of selected agri-environment grassland creation and restoration sites: Part 1 – 2010 survey. Natural England Commissioned Report 107.
Kleijn, D. et al. 2006. Mixed biodiversity benefits of agri-environment schemes in five European countries. Ecology Letters 9: 243–254.
Lawton et al 2010. Making Space for Nature: A review of England’s Wildlife Sites and Ecological Network. Report to Defra.
Mountford, J.O. & Cooke, A.I. (eds), 2013. Monitoring the outcomes of Higher Level Stewardship: results of a 3-year agreement monitoring programme. Natural England Commissioned Report 114.
Natural England 2013. MESME: report on the final outcomes. http://publications.naturalengland.org.uk/publication/5662762122870784?category=4679230129438720
Natural England 2016. Conservation 21: Natural England’s conservation strategy for the 21st century. NE642.
Pywell, R.F. et al 2012. Restoring species-rich grassland: principles and techniques. Aspects of Applied Biology, 115, 11-21.
Wilson, P., Wheeler, B., Reed, M. & Strange, A. 2013. A survey of selected agri-environment grassland and heathland creation and restoration sites: Part 2. Natural England Commissioned Report 107.
UK Parliament 2016. http://data.parliament.uk/WrittenEvidence/CommitteeEvidence.svc/EvidenceDocument/Environmental%20Audit/The%20Future%20of%20the%20Natural%20Environment%20after%20the%20EU%20Referendum/written/38368.html
UK Parliament 2017. http://data.parliament.uk/writtenevidence/committeeevidence.svc/evidencedocument/natural-environment-and-rural-communities-act-2006-committee/natural-environment-and-rural-communities-act-2006/oral/69287.html
Steve Peel was a senior specialist in eco-agronomy with particular responsibility for grassland, for Natural England and predecessor bodies, prior to his retirement in March 2017. He worked on agri-environment schemes for 30 years and chaired the group that designed the grassland options in Environmental Stewardship and Countryside Stewardship. He is a past president of the British Grassland Society and a founder member of the British Ecological Society’s Agricultural Ecology Group. The first three quarters of this text was published in the British Ecological Society Bulletin, vol 48:2, July 2017.