Farmers will be paid for looking after England’s soils for the first time from next year, when the first stage of the government’s new support payments begins.
Environmental groups criticised the measures as puny and accused ministers of failing in their promises to use the UK’s departure from the EU to strengthen environmental protections and reduce the damaging impacts of farming.
Farmers will be paid between £20 and £58 per hectare in England for basic measures to protect and nurture their soils, and nearly all farmers are likely to be eligible to apply for the payments, which will cover arable soils for crop cultivation as well as grassland, moorland and other soils.
The payments, along with others to come in future for further conservation measures, are set to reach £900m a year by the end of 2024, to meet the government’s pledge to phase out the old taxpayer subsidies based on the amount of land farmed – under the EU’s common agricultural policy (CAP) – and replace them with payments of “public money for public goods”.
Soil protection has been chosen as the first such payment after repeated government promises to prioritise the UK’s soils, which are a vital store of carbon. Some of the measures farmers will be required to undertake in return for the payments would be routine for many farmers anyway, such as planting cover crops on bare soil over winter. Bare soils are prey to erosion and runoff, so ensuring fields are covered in a crop that can return nutrients to the soil is key to its preservation.
George Eustice, the environment secretary, announced the measures at the Country Land and Business Association (CLA) rural business conference in London.
Mark Tufnell, the president of the CLA, which represents 28,000 farmers and rural businesses, said: “UK soil contains 10bn tonnes of carbon. There is no path towards net zero without better soil management … [These payments] are a good start, and show clear intent to support and reward farmers in their environmental delivery.”
But the leaders of three of the UK’s biggest green and conservation groups: the Wildlife Trusts, the RSPB and the National Trust jointly accused the government of failing to take seriously the urgent need for nature-friendly farming. They pointed to the sharp declines of native wildlife over the past three decades and said the government’s plans would do little to remedy that.