NFFN celebrates victory as Defra pledges to double Higher Tier agreements

The government’s decision to double the number of successful Countryside Stewardship Higher Tier agreements being processed by 2025 has been hailed as a major victory by the Nature Friendly Farming Network (NFFN).

The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) announced in the January 2024 update to its Agricultural Transition Plan that it would be increasing the number of farmers able to gain access per year to the most ambitious levels of support by the end of 2025 or early 2026.

Cumbrian organic dairy farmer James Robinson spent several months last year leading a campaign for greater access to the higher tier schemes, with thousands of people signing a petition to Defra demanding civil servants and politicians think again and letters being sent to MPs and election candidates in affected constituencies. Mr Robinson said that over the past decade successful applications to these schemes plummeted by a shocking 80%.

He has now expressed delight at Defra’s about-turn on Higher Tier type schemes in the latest update and thanked the department for listening to the voices of farmers and their supporters.

Mr Robinson, who chairs the NFFN England steering group and owns an all-grassland farm near Kendal, said, “This just shows that a campaign which had fairly modest resources behind it was able to gain momentum and achieve a real victory. We often think we can’t influence government policy but collectively we can make a real difference.

“It makes absolute sense for farmers who want to be more ambitious in driving change to have access to the Higher Tier agreements. They reward those farmers who want to go further and do more for nature.

“There are farmers who have been trying to get into the higher tier schemes for a couple of years now and hopefully this will open the agreements up to them and others like them.

“Farmers wanting to do good things for the environment should be welcomed with open arms and encouraged, not limited by a brick wall of bureaucracy.

“I am grateful to everyone who supported the campaign by sharing it on social media or by signing the petition or letters, and I would like to thank Defra for listening to us and making changes.”

Mr Robinson’s petition demanding more support for upland farmers received more than 2,750 signatures. Farmers wanting a better deal for the uplands then sent letters to politicians in a number of constituencies where upland farming makes particularly significant contributions to the local economy.

Farmers across England will now have a wider range of ways of enhancing the environmental credentials of their land to receive financial support to choose from after Defra added a further 50 actions to the Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) and Countryside Stewardship (CS) schemes in a move announced by environment secretary Steve Barclay at the Oxford Farming Conference.

While the NFFN has hailed this as a welcome step in the right direction and praised government for including a number of options it has been campaigning for, Mr Robinson said the Higher Tier scheme is still necessary as it allows for joined-up, whole-farm policies combining food production and nature’s protection rather than what NFFN CEO Martin Lines has termed a “pick and mix approach”.

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