Discussing Countryside Stewardship with Jake Fiennes, Charlie Ennals and Defra’s Jonathan Marsden

Last week, our Director of Growth, Dan Geerah, hosted an excellent panel discussion with leading industry experts to discuss Countryside Stewardship, the new ELMs schemes and the ins and outs of the agricultural transition.

Jake Fiennes – Director of Conservation at Holkam Estate, Charlie Ennals – Agricultural Relationships Manager at Wildfarmed and Facilitator of the North Norfolk Coastal Group farm cluster, and Jonathon Marsden – Head of Content for SFI and Countryside Stewardship at Defra, all joined to share their experiences and insights. Here, we discuss some highlights from the panel and the key takeaways on how Countryside Stewardship is transforming the way land is managed…

Countryside Stewardship to date 

The conversation opened with the panellists reflecting on the wins already brought about by Stewardship. Rather than focussing on specific options that have brought about habitat recovery, a clear emphasis on a collective mindset emerged. “Something that needs to be celebrated,” Charlie told us, “rather than individual options, is the level of uptake which has been led by the farmers themselves”. This groundswell of movement and its positive impact was echoed by Jake; “many farmers who were already doing this are now being rewarded, and this in turn brings a watershed of others moving toward better practice. It’s great to see significant uptake and the increasing impact this can have at the landscape scale”. 

Nor has this been limited to uptake in habitat conservation – the discussion swiftly turned to the sharing and sparing debate. With Stewardship and SFI, they said, we are seeing “good environmental food production being recognised”. For Jonathan, this amounts to a paradigm shift in the way we think. “The challenge now is to move the dial. Not just food, but food that also delivers us better water quality, more biodiversity, less pesticides in our water etc. With SFI and Stewardship together we can once again lead the world in a new direction for agricultural production.”

Some Impressive Figures 

Jonathan shed some light on the impressive figures for applications that Defra have received. 

  • Now over 15,000 applications for SFI 
  • Half a million hectares of arable land not getting insecticide treatment 
  • 89,000 hectares are using companion cropping 
  • 115,000 hectares making use of winter cover crops 

Clearly, the numbers don’t lie. In the words of Jonathan, “There is a real appetite for change in the industry toward sustainable practice.”

Advisors and the RPA

Nonetheless, there is much that can still be done to improve the experience of farmers and advisors. On the number of advisors, Charlie stressed that “there are not enough of us”, whilst it was harder for the smaller farms “often with sensitive habitats” that struggled to access or finance key support. Much of this comes down to bureaucracy: “An easier way to get information backwards and forwards between the RPA and advisors” would be very welcome, she said. 

Asked whether farmers could “go it alone” without advice, Jake was keen to emphasise the important role advice can play in this time of transition.

“Understanding what options to undertake based on your farming system is really key – and this is where advice is important. I have always asked for some sort of accreditation of advice. If there is a government standard of advice that would be really good.” Importantly, though, this transition is about empowerment. All the panellists stressed that this represents a real “opportunity for farmers to learn themselves” about what works in improving the farmed landscape. Especially with facilitation style groups coming together to collaborate and coordinate their efforts, Defra seems to be encouraging a “bottom-up approach”, where farmers learn from each other as much as the schemes. What remains critical, however, is enough intervention, clarity and incentive from government to ensure harmonised and effective work at scale

Digital Transition 

Agriculture, and with it agri-environment schemes, is undergoing a digital revolution. In the words of Jake, “we have moved on significantly from…the days of using coloured crayons on maps”. Charlie, too, highlighted the key role of Land App and MAGIC in assessing the habitat layout of the land before assessing a Countryside Stewardship application. From Land App’s perspective, this value is clear. As Dan reflected, “it’s great to see this digital revolution that is happening across the sector, not just with Land App. We had about 19,000 applications planned last year”.

Perhaps the greatest potential, though, was the value in baselining and monitoring these schemes to meaningfully track improvement that Jake mentioned: “One of my biggest concerns, and one of the greatest shortcomings in this phenomenal transition in British agriculture, is the lack of recognising the changes that we’ve made through baselining. 

We’re one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world, but we’ve never actually measured many improvements. To use SFI and Stewardship to baseline where we are, to then understand some of the gains, but also, some of the things that haven’t worked out. There is flexibility to adapt. Giving farmers the ability to baseline their farms for biodiversity, soil quality and water quality, and then measure their progress, would be something everyone could benefit from. ”

Given our work at Land App to make this a reality, we couldn’t agree more.

Standardisation and a confusing transition 

Some key tensions remained, though. Jonathan remained vague about the scheme changes coming this summer. We can expect to hear more “before too long”, but this will have done little to ease the anticipation and anxiety of those in the sector awaiting changes. Questions from the audience on key dates for release, agroforestry options and the potential for a more streamlined application process for schemes were addressed, but perhaps lacking detail. Standardisation in soil data, for example, despite it being critical for those engaging with carbon accounting, seems to be still up in the air. As Dan aptly put it, “the more consistency we can get in the sector, the more benefit we can get for all”.

Whilst we await the summer announcement, details on things like Countryside Stewardship Plus remain frustratingly out of reach.

Food Production and Security – challenging the myths

Thankfully, food security and its relationship with agri-environment schemes arose in conversation, and some key myths were debunked. Ideas that many farmers will take government money to just “grow flowers” were dismissed by the panel.

Asked about food production concerns, Jake and Charlie both pointed out that previous investments in farming don’t just disappear. “The reality I see, when farmers look at past investments in men, machines and technology for growing food, it would be madness to throw these away to grow flowers under government schemes… Generally, we will continue to see the vast majority of farmers continue to grow food in a more sustainable way, alongside high-value nature”

Importantly, Charlie pointed to the resilience this brings not only to the environment, but the farm businesses themselves. “These options are building resilience in farm business,” she said. “Farms across the country are struggling, for example for break crops, and it’s causing massive issues in their rotations. So if they can make use of a herbal lay or summer cover crop, it’s building diversity into their rotation which can only be a good thing.”

Hope for the future:

Fundamentally, the panel demonstrated the overwhelmingly positive potential of these schemes, as part of the agricultural transition, to bring about real change. Jake pointed to the Lawton Report, and how we need to create corridors across the farmed landscape between areas of high-value nature in order for ecosystems, farms and people to thrive. SFI and Countryside Stewardship are finally allowing this to happen, at speed and scale.

Asked what they are most looking forward to with the new agri-environment schemes, the panellist told us:

Jonathan: “In 5 years time, driving or a train ride through the countryside, and seeing the difference”

Jake: “In 2 years time, seeing the difference. Seeing 15,000 SFI applications going live, we will see the difference in the year. We will only see this accelerate. The farmed landscape is changing in a positive way.” 

Charlie: “I’m excited to see some of the regenerative farming options coming into the schemes. Being paid to manage the edge of the fields was one thing, but actually for the farming process itself is really exciting. And hedgerows – we’re seeing them being planted all over the place”

Clearly, there is some way to go with these schemes. Defra have many questions still to answer, and technical solutions still need to be found, but we have a huge opportunity to be a case study on the global stage. At Land App, our focus remains on making the transition as easy to navigate as possible. We will continue to innovate to make sure we bring land managers on this important journey with us, and facilitate important discussions such as these along the way.

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Growing up on a regenerative small holding, the relationship between food systems and the natural world has long been an interest of mine. Focusing on land-use tensions and geo-politics at Oxford, and now an MSc in Sustainable Development with Exeter, my interests lie in how we can leverage policy and natural capital principles to encourage not only regenerative land management and food systems alongside investment in nature recovery, but ultimately how we can ensure social equity and systems resilience. I’m drawn to the social elements of nature recovery and climate change adaptation, in particular the intersection of geopolitics, biodiversity economics and justice.
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