Farmers are to be paid hundreds of pounds per hectare for maintaining habitats in the long-awaited replacement of the European Union’s (EU) agricultural support scheme.

The Government has been under pressure to announce its agricultural support schemes since the UK left the EU.

Environment Secretary Steve Barclay set out the changes at the Oxford Farming Conference held at Oxford University last week.

The annual event is attended by 600 plus delegates in-person, plus hundreds who attend online, to discuss positive change throughout the industry.

Oxford Mail: Steve Barclay

Premium payments will be offered to those helping the environment, such as £765 per hectare for lapwing nesting plots, or £1,242 per hectare for connecting river and floodplain habitat.

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Farmers already carrying out work to protect nature will be offered higher payments, with the amount for maintaining grasslands, wetlands and scrub rising from £182 per hectare to £646.

Applications to receive support will be open from the summer of 2024 and are designed to promote British producers while encouraging them to protect nature.

Ministers are hoping to have 60 per cent of the food eaten in the UK produced here, while also meeting a commitment to restore at least 30 per cent of the UK’s natural environment by 2030.

Conservation groups have welcomed the payments for protecting habitats but said much more needs to be done to hit the 2030 target.

Mr Barclay said: “Farmers do the essential job of keeping Britain fed. That’s why I’ll back British farmers and help support farming businesses.

“We have listened to farmers’ feedback and set out the biggest upgrades to our farming schemes since leaving the EU, with more money, more choice and more trust to support domestic food production whilst also protecting the environment.

“We’re also making it easier for farmers of every farm type and size to enter the schemes, and I encourage everyone to take a look at how you can join the thousands of other farmers and land managers who are already receiving our backing through the schemes.”

Changes include a 10 per cent increase in the average agreements in the Sustainable Farming Incentive and Countryside Stewardship, with a more streamlined application process and about 50 new actions for which farmers can be paid, such as developing robotic mechanical weeding.

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The Government has previously said it is offering £45 million in support for those creating new technology to make farming more efficient.

There will also be different payment options for those creating habitats and those maintaining them, with shorter agreements of up to three years available for tenant farmers.

Mr Barclay also announced Government plans to change food labelling so that consumers can see if imported food does not meet UK welfare standards.

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The Government wants people to buy more domestically produced food and would like supermarkets to have a “buy British button” on their websites.

Richard Benwell, chief executive of Wildlife and Countryside Link, said: “It’s very good to see Defra offer higher premium payments for nature-friendly farming choices. Sustainable agriculture has been chronically undervalued for too long.

“However, much more is needed to support a sustainable farming future.

"With six years until the legal target to halt nature’s decline, it’s impossible to imagine that we’re on track to reverse long-term decline in farmland wildlife, restore protected habitats to good condition, or stop the pollution pouring into our waterways.

“With the complete absence of any long-term plan for stronger regulation, Defra could undermine the benefits of today’s announcements.

“Rather than a piecemeal pick ‘n’ mix approach, Defra should offer generous rewards for nature-friendly farming packages across whole farms.

“A plan to ratchet up ambition each year would give farmers the clarity they need to help halt nature’s decline by 2030.”