Farmers are threatening to quit the National Farmers’ Union after its leader said she supported the UK government’s apparent move to scrap post-Brexit nature subsidies.
This weekend it was revealed that the government was poised to abandon the “Brexit bonus”, which would have paid farmers and landowners to enhance nature, in what wildlife groups have described as an “all-out attack” on the environment.
Instead of the environmental land management scheme (Elms), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) sources disclosed, they are considering paying landowners a yearly set sum for each acre of land they own, which would be similar to the much-maligned EU basic payments scheme of the common agricultural policy.
Minette Batters, the president of the NFU, said she welcomed the departure from Elms. “My absolute priority is ensuring that farmers can continue to produce the nation’s food – so I do support maintaining direct payments in order to build a scheme that really will deliver for food production and the environment,” she said.
She later doubled down on this point, telling the BBC that she believed private money should be used to pay farmers for wildlife recovery, rather than public funds. She said: “We have got literally billions and billions of pounds in green finance that is looking to invest in wild environments. We should be making the private sector work effectively.”
Prominent members of the NFU have spoken to the Guardian, saying they were minded to quit if the leadership failed to clarify its position and support payments for environmental protections.
Jake Freestone, a regenerative farmer and Worcestershire county chairman for the union, has won awards for his soil quality after practicing nature-friendly farming. While he said he is not yet at the point of quitting, he appeared disappointed with the NFU’s apparent views on Elms.
“We do need to focus on the environment as well as food production and what does worry me is if we are going to throw out a lot of environmental protection on the basis of food security. But we are quite happily farming productively here and also providing good environmental protection – if you don’t have wildlife and pollinators and farmland birds, what do you have?” he said.
“The challenge we have is the NFU have a lot of diversified members with a lot of different interests.”
Martin Lines, the chair of the Nature Friendly Farming Network (NFFN), said many of his fellow farmers were leaving the NFU over its perceived anti-nature stance.
“I know of lots of NFU members who are very unhappy or have already left,” he said. “Unfortunately many farmers are members because they feel there hasn’t been any other farming body in the past that is a voice for farming. I know many farmers who are leaving the NFU and joining organisations like the Country Land and Business Association (CLA), NFFN and others, as the NFU doesn’t represent their views or voice.
“Many farmers are starting to realise the NFU does not represent or champion their voice or farming system.”
Mark Tufnell, the chair of the CLA, which represents 30,000 landowners, said he hoped the government would stick with Elms. He said: “There is concern that there might be a change in direction, it’s harsh to come in at a very early stage and say it isn’t working as it hasn’t been given a chance.”
On the NFU’s policy, he said: “You would have to ask the NFU. We have actively stated since about 2017 that we have always felt it is very difficult to justify a flat-rate payment to farmers and landowners just for the sake of owning land. The benefit of Elms is the more public goods you provide, the more you get paid, and you can stack the amounts you do in the public scheme with the private element.”
The NFU has been lobbied by some influential voices who are against Elms. Celebrities including the TV presenter Jeremy Clarkson, former Undertones singer Feargal Sharkey and former cricketers Ian Botham and David Gower have written to the government asking them to scrap environmental regulations.
Writing as “rural voices” who do “real work” that includes “cultivating the soil, looking after sick animals and bringing in the harvest”, they said environmental regulations on farmers “seek to appease the insatiable demands of a few self-righteous campaigners”.
On Monday, Batters said: “We’re pleased the government is reviewing the framework for future farming regulation to help ensure farm businesses are supported through the current economic challenges and can make progressive decisions to boost growth and farming’s contribution to the nation.
“The NFU has always supported the ‘public money for public goods’ policy but we have called for a delay as the scheme was not fit for purpose and ready to roll out in its current form.”