'Agri-environment payments mis-directed’ say Dartmoor Hill discussion group echoing a recent survey of Scottish Farmers

Friday, 12th February 2016

 Jan Dick, Centre for Ecology and Hydrology


I was privileged to be invited by the ‘Dartmoor Hill’ group to debate the concepts of natural capital and ecosystem services on a wild winters evening at Princetown, Devon, England. I was asked because of the research I have been doing with communities in the Cairngorms National Park, Scotland (funded by EU OpenNESS project www.openness-project.eu/ ).

The meeting was framed in terms of land use planning and payment for ecosystem services (PES). Farmers in the Dartmoor National Park share many of the same issues as those in the Cairngorms National Park; such as falling commodity prices, limited opportunities to diversify income sources and perceived increasing demand to deliver ‘free public services’ which impacted negatively on their ability to earn money from the land.

The 25 farmers present in the Plume of Feathers Inn were well aware of the public-to-private ‘Payment for Ecosystem Service schemes’ operating within England in the form of the agri-environment payment schemes e.g. Higher Level Stewardship. They echoed a recent survey of Scottish farmers which found that the rules and regulations of the agri-environment schemes were having a negative rather than a positive effect on the environment.  

I explained the results of a recent study conducted in collaboration with Moara Almeida Canova Teixeria1, a master’s student from Universidade Estadual Paulista, Brazil. Moara interviewed twenty-one Scottish farmers who reported that the current mechanism for delivery of the publically funded agri-environment scheme (Scottish Rural Development Programme) needs to be overhauled. The Scottish Farmers reported that the system is too complicated with 95% reporting they had to employ a consultant to complete the forms in order to present their ideas in the style and language of the decision makers. The farmers also emphasised that the inflexible nature of the schemes did not deliver the best environmental value because they were not tailored to the socio-ecological conditions of their farms.

Farmers in Dartmoor echoed the Scottish experience highlighting that there was a lack of co-creation of agri-environment schemes i.e. a lack of genuine working together of land managers, public servants and civil society to create an enhanced environment for all the people who use the land as well as the plants and animals who call it home.  At the Dartmoor meeting it was highlighted that Government officials responsible for creating and regulating the schemes in England appeared to lack the willingness or confidence to work with farmers for the benefit of the environment and civil society in general.  The farmers were keenly aware that taxpayer’s money was being directed inappropriately by the “prescriptive approach” adopted, and they highlighted a recent apparent narrowing of consultation in Dartmoor but felt powerless to change the direction of Government policy. 

The opportunities presented by the emerging new markets in the form of carbon trading and biodiversity offsets were discussed. While the ideas appeared reasonable the practicality of creating a market for a product which was previously free to society was highlighted as problematic by the Dartmoor farmers. “Too many scientists and not enough practical people” commented one farmer. The lack of a clear deliverable e.g. ‘one ton of carbon’ which necessitated an ‘estimate’ usually arrived at by complex modelling made farmers shy to commit to deliver something that they were not sure was deliverable. The risk of changing weather and fluctuating commodity markets for traditional crops like cereals, livestock and timber were familiar to the farmers  but the risks (political, commercial and climatic) associated with the new markets was hard to judge. In addition the very long time frames of some of the contracts inhibited flexible reactive land management which was considered a negative aspect of these markets.

The free public service of recreational access was a particular concern for both Dartmoor farmers and the Scottish farmers; “I don’t want payment from people walking on the land” commented one Scottish farmer “but they should respect the animals and their need to be left undisturbed to feed and breed”. The same point was raised by a Dartmoor farmer especially in relation to the negative effect that dog walking had on ground nesting birds in the spring. Dartmoor farmers commented on the ‘attitude of entitlement’ amongst people who did not obtain a livelihood from the land which they perceived had increased in recent years. They were not sure if this was simply their perception because of the vastly increased numbers of people using the area or because of a genuine change in the attitude of the people who came to use the area for recreation e.g. walk, bike, sledge down the hills when it snowed.

I reported that there was a recent trend in the research community to co-create knowledge in a transdisciplinary manner and this was now actively encouraged by research donors such as DEFRA and the European Union who recognised the need to pay all actors in the generation of knowledge to aid policy making. The farmers welcomed the direction of change and are clearly well placed to contribute to projects aimed at harnessing traditional knowledge and combining with rigorous scientific studies. The farmers in Scotland and England emphasised to me that in the past there was a spirt of cooperation between the policy makers, regulators, farmers and general public to facilitate delivery of what was wanted at that time i.e. food security.  However, from the time of plenty (milk lakes, butter mountains etc.) farmers felt they alone were held responsible for the environmental change which accompanied the food security policies. They welcomed the opportunity to re-engage with policy makers, regulators, and the general public to ensure delivery of a wider range of provision, regulating and cultural ecosystem services from their farms.


1 Moara Almeida Canova Teixeria’s studies were funded by the Sao Paulo Research Foundation in collaboration with the EU funded project OpenNESS (http://www.openness-project.eu).