ELMs (Environmental Land Management schemes) – What You Need To Know!

As we are all aware (though with some important details still notably undecided), gamekeepers, landowners and farmers are facing a quite substantial change to how government support payments will be processed, with the new ELMs scheme soon to be implemented.

For landowners and managers – whether ‘keepers or farmers – the current Countryside Stewardship (CS) programme – for which agreement registration opened last week – was set to be phased out until a U-Turn by DEFRA in December. CS is to now be ‘enhanced’ and form a tier of new schemes via ELMs.

For farmers, who are seeing an introduction to an entire new system for government support, the change is more sizable, with the Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) being replaced by ELMs.

To help understand what’s happening, why it matters and how to navigate the new schemes we have put together a question-and-answer briefing pack.

What’s happening to the current systems of support?

As mentioned, the CS scheme is enhanced  by the government as part of the ‘Green Industrial Revolution’ announced by Boris Johnson back in 2020, covering the aim of protecting and restoring the natural environment.

The BPS, which is based on how much land is farmed, subject to meeting “greening” requirements, is being phased out, and payments have been reduced each year from 2021. From next year, payments will be “delinked” from farming, so they will be made even if farmers have left farming. The delinked payments for each farm from 2024 will be based on the payments made to that farm from 2020 to 2022, but with the amount reduced each year by about 15% of the original payment. The last BPS payments will be made in 2027.

The BPS developed as the system for farm support under the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). The CAP was criticised for making payments based on area farmed, and for having complicated application and compliance procedures. Following the UK referendum vote to leave the EU in 2016, the government developed a new policy basing farm support on the principle of “public money for public goods”. The idea is to pay farmers primarily for delivering environmental benefits like improved soil health, increased biodiversity, and reduced greenhouse gas emissions. Some people have raised concerns that the approach neglects food production and food security. The Agriculture Act 2020 provides the legal framework for the new system.

What are Environmental Land Management schemes (ELMs)?

Environmental Land Management schemes (ELMs) are the mechanisms for implementing the new policy in England. The schemes will pay land managers and farmers for providing environmental goods and services alongside food production.

There are 3 ELMs being introduced: the Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI), Countryside Stewardship (CS), and Landscape Recovery.

What’s the timetable for introducing ELMs?

The government calls the period between 2021 and 2027 the ‘Agricultural Transition’. This is the process of moving from CAP BPS direct payments to the ELMs. The BPS will end completely in 2027. Pilots and initial ELMs started in 2022, and will be expanded and developed through the transition period.

CS, as part of the new ELMs, is now open for landowners. The scheme is allowing Higher Level Stewardship (HLS, CS’s predecessor scheme) agreement holders to take up CS revenue agreements alongside their HLS – which will benefit landowners who already have an HLS agreement, including many upland farmers, but want to increase their income from schemes by doing more on more of their land. Those currently in a CS agreement can already apply for another CS agreement if they want to extend their activities and support delivery of Environment Act outcomes.

What are the different types of ELMs?

There are three different types of ELMs being introduced in England.

The Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) will be available for all farmers, and will make ongoing payments to farmers over the agreed period to manage their land in an environmentally-sustainable way. It is the closest equivalent to the BPS, but rewards farmers for specific actions which they can identify and choose as best suited to their land. The main areas covered will be cropland management; grassland management; livestock management; tree and woodland management; boundary and hedgerow management; soil management; nutrient management; integrated pest management; efficient water use; wildlife and biodiversity; and the protection of heritage assets.

Countryside Stewardship (CS) and CS Plus will be developments of the existing schemes to improve local environmental habitats, targeting actions relating to specific locations and features. CS Plus will encourage farmers to work together to improve their environments on a larger scale. Both ongoing and one-off payments will be available. Before this year the government intended to replace CS with a new scheme, Local Nature Recovery, but this has now been scrapped. CS and CS Plus will focus on creating, managing and restoring habitats such as woodland, wetlands, freshwater, peatland, heathland, species-rich grassland, and coastal habitat, as well as connecting isolated habitats to form networks; natural flood management; species management; rights of way, navigation and recreation infrastructure; education infrastructure, events and services; and geodiversity and heritage asset management.

Landscape Recovery will focus on a small number of landscape-scale projects such as large-scale forest and woodland creation, restoration and improvement; ecosystem restoration; peatland restoration; and the creation and restoration of coastal habitats such as wetlands and salt marsh.

What was the recent government announcement about ELMs?

The Environment Secretary, Thérèse Coffey, announced plans to accelerate the roll out of ELMs last month. The Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) launched last year with three standards to improve soil health and moorlands eligible for payments. Six additional standards have now been added to start this year. The new SFI standards cover actions on hedgerows, grassland, arable and horticultural land, pest management and nutrient management. Tenant farmers can now apply for the SFI without landlord consent, and the period for agreements has been shortened to three years. The Environment Secretary also revealed a new SFI management payment available worth up to £1,000 a year to help cover the costs of applying for the scheme, and more details of payments available under the Countryside Stewardship (CS) schemes.

Arthur Barraclough, one of our directors, welcomed the commitment to increase landscape-scale conservation: “It is highly reassuring to see in print that the emphasis will be to evolve CS to make it more outcome focused with the specifications less prescriptive and more flexible. This clearly puts those who know and tend the land in the driving seat, and that is a positive signal.”

Farming and land management leaders were broadly positive about the announcement.

NFU Vice President David Exwood said: “It’s encouraging that Defra has provided us with more detail on the future of the ELM programme and brought forward a broader, more flexible offer for the SFI. For farmers and growers making crucial long-term decisions that are essential to running viable and profitable food producing businesses, it’s vital they have the full scheme details as soon as possible and know how the different schemes will work together. A speedy application and payment process will also be key to give farm businesses some much-needed security.”

What about systems in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland?

Agricultural policy is devolved, so there are different plans for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. In Wales, the Senedd is currently considering an Agriculture Bill which would introduce a Sustainable Farming Scheme from 2025. The Scottish government is consulting about introducing a future Bill intended to address climate change and biodiversity loss, whilst policy development in Northern Ireland is on hold pending formation of a new Northern Ireland Executive.

We are aware that there is a lot of information out there, and that the switch to new schemes is complicated to say the least. If you would like to talk through some options with one of our advisors – please feel free to call us on 01722 744494.