How to improve Agri-environmental Schemes across the North Sea Region countries
In 2021, just before the New Year, after two years of work, I completed the PARTRIDGE Transnational Report that summarised our surveys of farmers and other stakeholders on their opinion of the effectiveness of agri-environment (AE) schemes for arable farmland wildlife. This report is the result of hours of discussions with a very diverse group of people. We conducted a total of 74 interviews, spread across 5 countries, with individuals who had practical experience of AE schemes for arable farmland wildlife (mostly farmers and hunters) and individuals who worked for institutions involved in AE scheme policy, administration, or research.
Photo 1: Rotherfield demo site farm walk for Hampshire farmers union with our project manager Francis Buner. The challenge and secret to success is to convince farmers to start agri-environment (AE) schemes for arable farmland wildlife. Once they join an AE scheme, they are motivated to continue. © Kevin Milner
The project partners themselves were responsible for conducting the interviews, which gave them the opportunity to meet a range of people with whom they normally have little interaction. For me personally, these interviews provided novel insights into the world of hunters. The result of all these interviews was a wealth of information in which I, together with the interviewers across the PARTRIDGE project, summarised in this report. It highlights the similarities and differences between responses from the different PARTRIDGE partner countries. The responses were divided into five themes, covering the different perceptions of AE schemes that we encountered: organisation and design, ease of implementation, payments, knowledge and communication, and motivation and trust. I would like to highlight the most striking findings for each of these themes.
The first theme, “organisation and design” showed that some partner countries provide personalised advice to farmers (at little or no cost to the farmer), while in others there is a need for farmers to pay for this themselves. The other striking difference was the level of targeting of AE schemes, in some partner countries farmers across the whole rural area can have an AE scheme, while in others they are only available in designated areas. There are also large differences in how farmers perceive inspections of AE schemes. Unfortunately, there is broad agreement that more assistance, both in terms of advice and inspections, is needed across all countries.
As for “ease of implementation”, there was widespread consensus on the issues addressed in the theme of. Most respondents considered it preferable that AE schemes are constructed in such a way that they can easily be integrated into farmers' operations and flexibly adapted when needed. This section of the report formulates several proposals for adjustments of AE schemes on a country-by-country basis.
The next topic was "payment”, and everything related to it. Although AE schemes are an instrument regulated at European level, there are big differences in the calculations that partner countries use to arrive at payment levels, often reflecting productivity, accepted methods of cultivation/management, or what commodities are produced. The result was that in some partner countries payments are up to three times higher than in others.
The responses considered in the fourth theme, "knowledge and communication", showed that there is still much to be done on both these topics, across all partner countries. There is a need for clear communication channels between farmers and the general population to improve knowledge/perception about agriculture, nature, and nature management. The information flow needs to go both ways. There appeared to be differences between partner countries in their approach to knowledge transfer and communication with farmers. Some countries are in favour of uniting farmers in groups (collectives, clusters etc.), whilst others are not.
The last theme discussed in the report is "motivation and trust". In general, responses from all countries indicated three motivations for joining an AE scheme for arable farmland wildlife. These are: "doing something positive for the environment", the remuneration (for farmers), or the interest in wildlife management (for hunters). More emphasis on the commercial benefits of the options in AE schemes (such as integrated pest control, improvements in soil health) may help encourage farmers to take part. Conversely, distrust of government was considered by many respondents to play a role in not having an AE scheme in Germany (Lower Saxony), Scotland and England.
A key finding was that farmers reported that once they join an AE scheme, they are motivated to continue. It seems that the challenge and secret to success is to convince farmers to start😊.
Those who have been following the subject for a while will notice that our report contains little that is novel, but rather confirms the results of other research on how AE schemes are perceived and issues with their take up by farmers. This is a well-researched field.
Having said that, project partners did feel that there was added value for this socio-economic research within the PARTRIDGE project. The whole team (approx. 30 people working in different aspects of AE schemes of arable farmland wildlife) was involved and informed in the process of drafting and processing the interviews.
There was regular discussion about the findings (both those highlighted above and those from the published literature), which informed and encouraged PARTRIDGE partners to apply the findings of both our and others’ research.
I hope that the project partners themselves, and others, will start thinking about the AE schemes for arable farmland wildlife in their countries and use our results in targeted attempts to adjust and optimise the uptake of AE schemes.
This Transnational Report is not an end point for the socio-economic research undertaken in the PARTRIDGE project. In the spring of 2021, based on the findings in this report, an extensive survey of farmers in the partner countries was conducted with the aim of further substantiating our results with quantitative data, as compared to the qualitative approach of our interviews. The results from this survey are expected by the end of 2022. The final results from this second report, can be downloaded here.
The preparation of this report was a group effort. Therefore, I would like to express my sincere thanks to the colleagues who were closely involved in its preparation (Julie Ewald, Fiona Torrance, Frans van Alebeek and Lisa Dumpe).
Project partners in Belgium, England, the Netherlands, and Scotland summarised the results of the interviews in each country in national reports – they can be downloaded here.
Written by Nel Ghyselinck, Flemish Land Agency (VLM), Belgium and edited by Francis Buner, Head of PARTRIDGE NSR, GWCT