The government is to scrap the “Brexit bonus” which would have paid farmers and landowners to enhance nature, in what wildlife groups are calling an “all-out attack” on the environment, the Observer can reveal.
Instead, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) sources disclosed, they are considering paying landowners a yearly set sum for each acre of land they own, which would be similar to the much-maligned EU basic payments scheme of the common agricultural policy.
The Environment Land Management Scheme (Elms), devised by the former environment secretary Michael Gove, was constructed to encourage farmers to create space for rare species including wading birds and dormice, as well as absorbing carbon to help England reach its net zero target. Pilot schemes have created rare habitats and brought back species including nightingales, beavers and white stork.
Now, landowners and land managers who have been part of Elms have told the Observer that meetings with the government about their land have been removed from the diary as the scheme goes on pause.
Defra sources confirmed that Elms measures are under review and area-based payment is on the table.
Daniel Zeichner, the Labour MP for Cambridge and shadow farming minister, said this was a “complete betrayal of something that they said would be one of the key benefits of Brexit”. Many farmers had changed how they use their land because of the forthcoming Elms requirements.
He added: “Any reversal of the scheme would be highly disruptive to the sector; we agreed with the broad direction of it, although we did think the government was moving too quickly.
“This is a complete step back from their promises, and to tear it up without any consultation would be nothing short of mindless vandalism.”
The prominent Conservative Ben Goldsmith, a former Defra board member, said he was disgusted by the plans. He commented: “There are rumours that the government is considering resuscitating an old subsidy scheme in which landowners across the country will be paid per acre of land that they own, no matter how well they care for it. In 2022 – surely not.
“A system governed by the principle of public money (only) for public environmental good is a much better idea than unconditional subsidies for landowners. Let’s hope the government sticks to the course.”
Wildlife groups are set to revolt over the move. Craig Bennett, chief executive of the Wildlife Trusts, which has 860,000 members, said: “They have no democratic mandate to do this, it was in the election manifesto. What you’ve seen in the space of the last week is Liz Truss’s government basically trashing all the environmental commitments that were in the 2019 manifesto.
“If now, this government is going back to area-based payments, then it will have dumped the one silver lining around Brexit that perhaps might have been good for the environment. It seems there is an all-out attack on the environment under Liz Truss’s government.”
Shaun Spiers, executive director of Green Alliance, said: “I cannot believe a government committed to ‘the most ambitious environmental programme of any country on Earth’ would do anything as reckless with taxpayers’ money. It would make the budget look like a model of caution and prudence.”
Isabella Tree, who runs the Knepp Estate in Sussex, was supposed to operate one of the government’s flagship landscape recovery schemes. Her area is pioneering nature-friendly farming and is a recipient of nature recovery funding, and she is the author of perhaps the world’s best-known rewilding manual, Wilding.
She said: “Elms has been four years of deep thinking about the future, millions of hours spent by thousands of people from all sectors, about how we can reform land management so we don’t destroy the systems we depend on, so we have an agronomy, a land base and natural resources that will sustain us for generations to come.
“For once there was long-term vision from government. And to think that all of that effort and all that time and dedication and deep understanding is just being tossed aside beggars belief..”
The National Farmers’ Union has been pushing back against plans to pay farmers for nature schemes rather than food production.
Minette Batters, the NFU president, welcomed the departure from Elms. “My absolute priority is ensuring that farmers can continue to produce the nation’s food – so I do support maintaining direct payments in order to build a scheme that really will deliver for food production and the environment,” she said.
A Defra spokesperson did not deny the change was to take place, and said:
“To boost the rural economy, food production and our food security, we will continue to support farmers and land managers by reviewing farm regulation, boosting investment and innovation in the sector.”