If we haven’t already got used to this acronym, then with Defra’s help by the Spring of 2021, we certainly shall. It stands for Environmental Land Management Scheme – which is taking the place of the BPS. Be warned, it is not the UK version of BPS, post-Brexit. It is different and it’s going to be promoted and implemented under the catchphrase ‘public money for public good’. Will it be the best thing ever? Will it contribute to conserving and sustaining our flora and fauna? Will it influence efforts to combat climate change? Will the public actually benefit? And finally, will farmers be in favour of it? We might not know the answers to these questions yet but when the detail emerges – which we are promised next year – then it may clarify the future. Even now there is some concern that the money available to service ELMS will be restricted and may be much less of a priority for a government still paying back the cost of the Covid pandemic. And when the government do finally decide how much money is available, what then are going to be the criteria for distributing it?
If ELMS is used to support the big landowner (5,000 acres is not such an enormous unit nowadays, even for the UK), potentially there could be a real contribution to the creation of natural habitat and to public enjoyment (and did I also say access?). Curtailing the cultivation of vast plains, hitherto awash with cereals, would seem to be a real gain - for the public (and environmental) good. Yet, these ‘entrepreneurs’ are probably making large profits already and do they need the same amount of government support? Perhaps it should go instead to the small landowner who also manages pockets of woodland, river bank, hill land, heath and pasture - places where many species are already struggling. Yet, these small holdings may already be uneconomic (in true commercial terms) and have been boosted by other sources of income - off-farm jobs and careers, or on-farm diversification (eg holiday lets or equestrian). So do they need public money and how might this prove to be for the ‘public good’?
I read one article recently in a Sunday paper about a successful and genuine farmer who simply sought to farm and not ‘curate’ the countryside. Farmers have done this for generations; that’s what they do. And it has been done with the farmer's love and knowledge of the countryside and of the agricultural opportunities the land offers – whether it be to grow cattle, sheep or crops – and with his or her understanding of the natural habitats and wildlife it nurtures. Will any subsidy scheme really be the motivator or catalyst for their choices? Farmers may utilize it as an economic option, but will it create or preserve the landscape? I am convinced that these treasures come from the initiative, vision and understanding of the land that countrymen and women have in their genes and - if you check below the surface - perhaps many of us have.
ELMS will no doubt have its candidates and, for many, the Government support will indeed underpin their economic existence. Let’s hope there will also be others who choose and can afford to invest their private resources in protecting and advancing the UK’s special environment, for everyone to appreciate. But many still regard agriculture as being more than a bulwark for Nature. Food production also needs to be sustained both for this country and for a world population that continues to grow. We might be seeing agricultural history approaching its next milestone; it will be for others to judge ELMS when they see its effects on our countryside and our farming in the years to come.