How to improve Agri-environment Schemes in the North Sea Region?
Biodiversity on arable land, such as farmland birds, insects, and plants, are facing serious threats from habitat loss, fragmentation, and degradation. Agri-environment schemes (AES) are one of the main tools to protect and enhance arable wildlife habitats and populations. Despite this support, farmland flora and fauna continue to decline (Eichenberg et al., 2021; Riga, et al., 2023; Wagner, 2020). The failure of current AES to address declines has been related to the low uptake of schemes in general, insufficient funding, the lack of effective options available in schemes, options that are difficult to implement and a lack of advice on how best to manage these options to provide maximum value for wildlife.
As part of the PARTRIDGE project, we set out explore how to improve AES uptake and provision by interviewing 89 stakeholders from across the North Sea area to gather their thoughts on this subject. These stakeholders included farmers both with and without AES, farmland ecology researchers, advisors specialising in AES advice, and policymakers involved in AES design. Following on from these interviews we asked farmers across the North Sea Region to tell us what they thought of these stakeholder’s suggestions and to determine if they had any further advice for us. Two reports were produced from this work – one outlining the opinions of the stakeholders and one covering the responses from farmers across the wider countryside.
We interviewed 15 stakeholders in each country (Belgium. England, Germany, the Netherlands, and Scotland) – eight farmers, some of whom had not taken up AES, with the remaining seven interviews involving policymakers, farming representatives, advisors, and researchers. These took place in autumn/winter of 2018 into 2019. We found that the topics discussed in the interviews revolved around five major themes. These were: aspects of the organisation and design of AES, the ease of implementation of AES management, the levels of AES payments involved and how these were calculated, communications and knowledge – especially regarding education and training and finally motivation and trust. Comparing the results of the interviews across the five countries allowed us to see positives and negatives of the different AES and the detail of this can be found in the report. We summarise our findings very briefly below:
ORGANISATION AND DESIGN – Issues that stood out as important to interviewees were the need for advice (paid for by the government – though not necessarily provided by governmental advisors), equal access to AES and fair and equitable AES inspections.
EASE OF IMPLEMENTATION – The main concerns expressed here were the need to ensure that AES management fit within farm management practices and available machinery, and the need for flexibility in AES options – while still ensuring that this flexibility did not compromise the wildlife value of the option and a desire to avoid overly complicated AES.
PAYMENT – There were large differences in the levels of payments for AES between the different countries, reflecting financial considerations at a national level. Across all countries, many felt that the level of payment was not sufficient to cover all costs. Interestingly, in those countries where payments were higher, the financial aspect of AES was very much an important incentive to take up AES.
COMMUNICATION AND KNOWLEDGE – Our respondents indicated a need to educate farmers about the needs of arable farmland wildlife. Training could be either formal or informal – potentially using farmer to farmer networks, clusters, or collectives. Also, communication to raise public awareness of how farmers use AES to support biodiversity was considered an important element going forward, ensuring support for AES in the future.
MOTIVATION AND TRUST – Across all the countries, farmers involved in AES considered that doing something good for the environment was one of the motivating factors for their involvement.
Interestingly, in countries with higher payments, the financial aspect of AES was probably more decisive than a perceived positive effect on the environment. Experience mattered – those who had been in AES longer were more likely to continue with them, despite any issues they may have had with their implementation. For some respondents distrust of the government played a part in their decision not to join an AES. At the time of the interviews respondents in the UK were uncertain of how Brexit would affect them, and there was general uneasiness in how Brexit would affect them personally and their involvement with AES.
Following these interviews, in the spring of 2021, we asked farmers across the original five countries (plus Denmark), to give us their opinion on how to improve AES and expand uptake. In total we received complete answers from 890 farmers. We summarise their responses below:
ENCOURAGE FARMERS TO JOIN A SCHEME
Three simple changes would help those farmers not currently in an AES to join one. These were:
- The provision of free to use advice, in combination with short-term contracts (1—2 years in length).
- Increase payment levels by around 30% and ensure that they cover all costs. Just over a third of farmers considered payment levels too low.
- Be more flexible in how AES options are managed, though not at the expense of achieving the biodiversity goals that the AES is designed to meet, and that the farmer has set with the assistance of their advisor.
The following six suggestions would help encourage farmers that were already in an AES to expand their participation.
- Provision of targeted advice was also considered important – so much so that a fifth of those with AES currently would consider paying for it, though free-to-use advice was preferred by most.
- Instead of short contracts, farmers who already had an AES were interested in undertaking longer contracts and were also interested in providing more AES options.
- Around a third of farmers already in an AES would be interested in schemes funded through the private sector (biodiversity or carbon offsets for example).
- Just under a third of farmers with an AES thought payments were too low, suggesting an increase in payments of nearly a fifth.
- When farmers encountered issues with their AES, they expressed that these need to be addressed quickly and without extended bureaucratic interventions. Those responsible for administrating AES must be open to providing derogations, whilst ensuring that they do not compromise the goal of the AES, which the farmer will have set with their advisor.
- Measuring and feeding back on the benefits of the AES for farmland wildlife is key to encouraging farmers to take up additional AES and longer contracts. Everyone likes to see the results of their hard work and know they are successfully looking after nature.
Across both the interviews and survey, it was clear that farmers were motivated by an interest in nature and a desire to support biodiversity on the land they farm. AES need to fit in with the conditions on their farms, but it is possible, through flexibility and compromise on all sides, to provide habitats for nature on farmland. To maximise these opportunities, communication is key – with all involved working on finding solutions for wildlife and farming.
AES have great potential to contribute to the environmental, social, and economic sustainability of the North Sea Region. However, this potential can only be realised if AES are well-designed, well-funded, well-implemented, well-monitored, and well-communicated.
Eichenberg, D., Bowler, D. E., Bonn, A., Bruelheide, H., Grescho, V., Harter, D., ... & Jansen, F. (2021). Widespread decline in Central European plant diversity across six decades. Global Change Biology, 27(5), 1097-1110.
Rigal, S., Dakos, V., Alonso, H., Auniņš, A., Benkő, Z., Brotons, L., ... & Devictor, V. (2023). Farmland practices are driving bird population decline across Europe. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 120(21), e2216573120.
Wagner, D. L. (2020). Insect declines in the Anthropocene. Annual review of entomology, 65, 457-480.
Written by Dr Julie Ewald, Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT), edited by Fiona Torrance GWCT Scotland.