Four-point plan to back nature-friendly farming in Northern Ireland unveiled

Farmers in Northern Ireland are not being rewarded for working in a way that balances nature recovery and food production as much as their counterparts elsewhere in the British Isles, the Nature Friendly Farming Network (NFFN) NI says.
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The organisation, which has more than 400 members in Northern Ireland, has come up with a four-point plan for the assembly at Stormont to get working on as soon as it returns to ensure agricultural and environmental standards in the country are not slipping.

NFFN NI has spoken out after Defra announced a comprehensive raft of 50 new options in its recent Agricultural Transition Plan (ATP) which offer farmers in England money for ambitious environmental actions. That takes the total of options available to English farmers to more than 300. In Wales, a final consultation is under way on a sustainable land management scheme, while the Republic of Ireland is already implementing a range of innovative environmentally-focused schemes.

By contrast Northern Irish farmers who want to work in harmony with nature face few options in the face of a political vacuum which has left civil servants trying to work on policy, significant parts of which require ministerial sign-off. In some cases, schemes that previously supported farm-scale environmental action have been scrapped without a suitable replacement being in place.

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NFFN NI is concerned about the gap opening up between support levels for nature-friendly farming in Northern Ireland compared to England, Wales and the Republic of Ireland, where schemes are either in place or in the final stages of development.

NFFN NI manager Cormac Dolan said: “Many farmers in Northern Ireland are hungry to make changes to their businesses that support sustainable food production while restoring nature and taking action on the climate crisis.

“They are looking at other parts of the British Isles, where farmers will receive generous rewards for nature-friendly farming, with envy.

“We desperately need a ramped-up local offer, which helps farmers harness natural processes for the benefit of their businesses and wider society alike.”

NFFN NI has unveiled its four-point plan which needs to be prioritised urgently at Stormont, which in turn needs to be returned to work as soon as possible.

The four demands are:

  • Comprehensive details of the Farming For Nature package to be published as soon as possible.
  • A commitment to funding schemes at a level which will deliver the commitments to nature and the climate written into law in the Climate Act of 2020.
  • Publish an ambitious Environmental Strategy that recognises the role of nature-friendly farming in delivering its objectives.
  • A commitment to bring forward a NI Agriculture Act before the end of this Assembly mandate.

NFFN NI steering group chair Stephen Alexander, who farms pedigree cattle in Co Down, said: “Our members are working hard to lower their inputs and environmental footprint while bringing about positive change for nature and increasing biodiversity. They often find these changes can aid a more resilient business structure.

“Policy too must support farmers in the essential adaptations that are under way. Northern Ireland has the potential to be at the forefront of this change.

“The agricultural policies and environmental land management scheme being released in England are the envy of our NFFN members here in NI. We require a functioning Assembly that will take these issues on board and prioritise the implementation of accessible, long-term, sustainable agricultural policy.”

NFFN NI says the latest agricultural update by Defra gives English farmers support for an array of nature-friendly actions for which Northern Irish farmers receive little or no reward. This includes planting herbal leys, producing food in an organic system and using mob or rotational grazing for livestock.

The Welsh government is also consulting on a number of ambitious nature-friendly farming ideas in the Sustainable Farming Scheme (SFS), such as a requirement for 10% of farms to be given over to biodiversity in order to access funding.

NFFN NI also says farmers in the country need to be able to start making long-term plans for the future and are concerned about farmers already working positively for nature or wanting to farm in this way not be able to keep receiving funding through existing schemes because their continuation requires political approval.

Louise Skelly farms at Shanaghan Hill in Katesbridge, Co Down. Her 80-acre site mainly produces sheep and lambs and also has a couple of family businesses on the farm, and she farms according to the principles of regenerative agriculture including mob grazing and prioritising soil health.

She said: “Farming is sewn into the DNA of Northern Ireland’s economy. I believe agriculture has a very positive future, particularly if we go down the road of nature-friendly farming based on good stewardship of the land and bringing people along with us, but the lack of an Assembly has created a vacuum and no policy.

“The future is quite uncertain, there seems to be a lack of engagement with the public and there is limited information on the schemes that will replace the Basic Payment Scheme when it is reduced this year. We need the Assembly up and running again.”