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Environmental organisations have cautiously welcomed the proposals for future agriculture policy, as set out by the Department for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs. The Coalition of environmental organisations feel that the proposals have the potential to deliver a successful and just agricultural transition.
This is a crucial moment as these proposals and the policies and funding that flow from them will set the direction for the largest agricultural transformation in Northern Ireland for 50 years. The Group feels that environmental land management must be a higher priority and that greater clarity around the future monetary package and proposed timelines for money moving towards Farming for Nature is critical to signalling the need for change.
Commenting on the proposals, Dr Jonathan Bell, Chairperson of the Sustainable Land Use Group said:
“We welcome the assertion that over time money will move away from a resilience payment and go towards the Farming for Nature package which should become the central plank of future agriculture policy. However, if as proposed, the majority of funds are allocated to a new resilience payment with no subsequent substantial movement of money towards Farming for Nature, it will inevitably lead to the concern that the new policy is a continuation of the status quo.”
The Farming for Nature Package has been largely welcomed, particularly the intention to encourage 10% of farmland to be managed for biodiversity. However, the Group thinks further ambition is needed to ensure that 10% is viewed as the minimum standard for nature on all farms. Farming needs to be seen as the vehicle for protecting existing species and habitats and enabling the restoration and creation of new habitats across Northern Ireland.
Commenting on the Farming for Nature package, Craig McGuicken, Chief Executive of Northern Ireland Environment Link stated:
“Action to improve biodiversity cannot be done in isolation, there needs to be link up between habitat creation, restoration and management so that across Northern Ireland an extensive ecological network is fostered. Ambitious reform of agriculture policy is needed to enable and support farmers to scale-up and expand the delivery of on-farm nature based solutions while at the same time building more resilient farm businesses.”
Finally, the Group raised concerns about the proposed headage sustainability measure. Headage is another form of coupled support that is directly tied to levels of agricultural production, which could lead to overstocking, particularly in marginal areas.
The Northern Ireland Chair of the Nature Friendly Farming Network, Michael Meharg stated:
“We are pleased to see proposals for nature positive farming as well as support for reducing carbon outputs. Whilst we understand the intention to try and support struggling sectors through a headage sustainability measure, we do not believe that this is the best way to deliver resilient, sustainable farm businesses. We have serious concerns about the unintended environmental consequences and the impact it could have on traditional cattle breeds which currently provide a vital service in maintaining important natural habitats in the uplands. High Nature Value Farming and the Less is More approach1 provides an alternative way of boosting farm incomes in the uplands and can yield better value for money by providing ecosystems services rather than productivity.”