Plans to restore land to nature almost double London’s area over the next two decades will be presented by ministers on Thursday as they review England’s agricultural support after Brexit.
Applications will open for the first 15 “landscape restoration” projects – the most ambitious tranche of the government’s plans to pay farmers and landowners for environmental work – as part of the changes announced by George Eustice, the environment minister.
These initial projects will aim to restore 10,000 hectares of wildlife and save carbon emissions equivalent to 25,000 cars, while improving the habitat of around half of England’s most endangered species, including water mice, sand lizards and curls.
The landscape restoration scheme will pay farmers for “radical” changes to land use and habitats, such as the creation of nature reserves, the restoration of floodplains and the establishment of large forests or wetlands.
The new grant programs will aim to restore 300,000 hectares of wildlife habitat by 2042, an area almost twice the size of the capital. They will also include a sustainable agricultural incentive, which will pay landowners for measures such as reducing fertilizer consumption and the more ambitious “local nature restoration scheme”, aimed at projects such as restoring peatlands.
“We want to see profitable farms producing nutritious foods that support a growing economy in rural areas where nature is recovering and people have better access to it,” Eustice said.
But agricultural groups said the policy still lacked the details needed to enable farmers to plan ahead as they face a gradual phasing out of EU-like subsidies paid by land area by 2028 and the elimination of existing environmental schemes.
Tom Bradshaw, vice president of the National Farmers’ Union, said more information was needed to enable farmers to make “crucial long-term decisions that [were] crucial for them to be able to run viable and profitable businesses ”.
Julia Aglionby, chairwoman of the Uplands Alliance, said farmers and landowners “remain in the dark on how to ‘take care of the gaping gap’ between [EU-style subsidies] phase out and [the new scheme’s] introduction. ”
She described the restoration goal as “very unambitious”, pointing out that 300,000 hectares restored to wildlife was less than 3 per cent of the land mass in England, and expressed concern over the lack of financial commitments beyond this Parliament.
The policy also lacked payments for work to improve cultural heritage or access to education, she added, despite previous promises that these would be included.
Britain’s three largest nature charities – Wildlife Trusts, National Trust and RSPB – said Brexit presented a “golden opportunity” to manage land for nature, but that this was “at risk” due to the lack of details.
Farmers, especially those who raise livestock, have for decades been heavily dependent on EU aid, amounting to more than £ 1.6 billion. per year in England. Ministers have promised to maintain the overall level of subsidies when moving payments to the new systems.