This article first appeared in Farmers Weekly 4th August 2017

So Gove has spoken. Future farm subsidies will be assessed on the environmental and public benefits delivered by farmers - a green Brexit, hard or soft. Who decides what those benefits are, and how they can be delivered, is another matter. To take three examples, RSPB, NFU and George Monbiot have all had their say, and they all want different things (surprise surprise). If Stewardship is to be part of that, we will need a new, home grown and funded scheme. But the last thing the industry needs is a scheme designed by everyone except the people who have to put it into practice. So we must draw on the experience of those managing the countryside and delivering on the environment, and find what will work.

We shouldn’t kid ourselves any new scheme can be completely free of rules, but it should put more power in the hands of farmers and less in the hands of the inspectors. We have to start, though, by accepting we won’t get ELS back. It was simple and inclusive, but it was a blank cheque that didn’t deliver enough for wildlife. On the other hand, new Countryside Stewardship is focused, but too complex. You’ve only got to sit with someone for an hour trying to explain it (as I have twice in the space of a few days recently) to appreciate that. Yet CS has within it the germ of a way forward - the ‘Facilitated Groups’. It’s a simple principle – get farmers together to decide the objectives for their own area, and what they want to do. As it stands, a CS Group can only lever in money to manage itself and for events and training. But a new scheme could attach some funding for work on the ground, and allocate it through a local decision-making panel. Keep it local and flexible, and you avoid the top down, one size fits all approach. Keep it simple, and you don't need a manual with 8 pages of diagrams explaining how to avoid overlap between Stewardship and cross compliance buffer strips. (At least Brexit gives us the chance to stop making land managers jump through three hoops of cross compliance, Greening and agri-environment schemes.)

I know plenty of good farmer-adviser partnerships working now, both one to one and one to many. The farmer who knows a local birder who advises him on where to put seed mix plots for species like turtle dove. The project officer who works with farmers on Romney Marsh, and can put some money into providing wildflower mixes that encourage rare bumblebees. We need to widen our view of what ‘environment’ means, too.  If you can pay people to produce turtle doves or bumblebees, why not pay them to raise soil organic matter levels, and produce earthworms? If you can fund a biobed, why not a soil biology conserving bit of kit?

Farmers need to put themselves in the best position to join in a new scheme. First, build your own evidence base. In or out of a scheme, what are you doing for your environment? Buffering watercourses, got a good population of yellowhammer? Take pictures, note numbers and dates. Then, get help from the experts. People from the bodies that sound most anti farmer at top level can be the most brilliant on the ground when you need it, but it can be anyone who has the know-how to put ideas into practice. Lastly, tell anyone who will listen, about where you think agri-environment policy should be going, and how a future scheme would work best for you – NFU, CLA, FWAG – anyone who can pester the policy makers in turn. We’ve less than two years to come up with a new scheme, so we’d better start now.

Stewardship must be 'simple, flexible and local'