Updated Dec 3, 2021

New land subsidy rules for farmers who protect soil

In 2022, for the first time, farmers will be paid for looking after soil health.

Nearly all farmers are likely to be eligible to apply for the payments which cover arable soils for crop cultivation as well as grassland, moorland and other soils. Those farmers who adopt basic measures to protect and nurture the soil on their land will be paid between £20 and £58 per hectare for doing so. Some measures farmers will be required to undertake for the payments would actually be routine for many farmers anyway - for example planting cover crops on bare soil over winter to prevent erosion and return nutrients to the soil.

These payments, alongside other future subsidy schemes for further conservation measures, are set to reach £900 million a year by the end of 2024. It comes as part of the government’s pledge to replace the taxpayer subsidies under the EU’s common agricultural policy (CAP), with payments of “public money for public goods”.

The UK's soils are a vital storage of carbon, and consequently soil protection is the first area in which these new payments will be made.

Environmental groups, however, have criticised the measures as punitive and said ministers have failed in their promise to strengthen environmental protections and reduce the damaging impacts of farming post-Brexit.

Under the EU's CAP system, a total of £2-3 billion was received by farmers a year. These subsidies were maintained at £2.4 billion a year after Brexit, but by 2024 this figure will be reduced to £900 million. Those farmers who received the most subsidies under the CAP system will face the steepest cuts of around 25% of the total amount. By 2027, basic payments based on the amount of land farmed will also be phased out altogether. Eventually, the plan is that this will lead to farmers signing environmental land management contracts - these would commit them to taking certain measures to protect air and water quality and provide wildlife habitats for wildlife, in return for payments which are yet to be set out in further detail. 

Money aside, three of the UK's largest conservation groups have also criticised these new plans. The RSPB, the Wildlife Trusts and the National Trust have said the government are failing to take the urgent need for nature-friendly farming seriously, and their plans would do little to remedy the sharp declines in native wildlife we have experienced over the past three years.

The chief executive of the Wildlife Trusts, Craig Bennett, commented: "There’s so much that farmers could be rewarded for doing, such as restoring peatlands and employing ambitious measures to prevent soil and pollutants from washing into rivers – to help wildlife and store carbon. It’s an absolute scandal that the government has failed to seize this unique and important opportunity to improve farming."

Meanwhile farming groups have welcomed these proposed new measures, although remained cautious about what the future holds.

Farm policy adviser at the Tenant Farmers Association, Lynette Steel, said when combined with other government incentives the payments offered were attractive enough, but believed that current high food prices would actually discourage many farmers from applying. Adding: "Given today’s commodity markets, many farmers will take the view that it is more financially beneficial to farm for [food] production rather than for soil protection, under the cost structure announced."