The release of further information by Environment Secretary, George Eustice on the Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI), providing some “much-needed clarity” has been welcomed by the National Sheep Association (NSA), however the association believes there is still an urgent need for improved communication of the Agricultural Transition Plan.

NSA chief executive Phil Stocker commented:

“The NSA is pleased to see much of the detail released yesterday that will lead the roll out of SFI in 2022. It is comforting to see recognition of the value of soil health and how it is key to plant and livestock health.

“We welcome the launch of the Animal Health and Welfare Pathway integrated into SFI through paid for vet visits starting a health and welfare review.

“The NSA is also pleased that the SFI pilot will shortly be open for applications and that this learning pilot will inform future scheme development.

Although it creates communication challenges, we believe it is right to start a gradual roll out in 2022 of standards that can run alongside a simplified Countryside Stewardship Scheme (CSS), with CSS transitioning across to new schemes gradually.

“However while we welcome the soil health standards, we are disappointed there is no soils option for unimproved grassland, when a key principle is to reward farmers for environmental goods being delivered.

“This shouldn’t be all about incentivising change and improvement, it also needs to be about reward for those that are doing the right thing now, and Defra need to guard against a surge in farmers making their unimproved grassland ‘improved’,” he added.

“This could be a classic example of an unintended consequence that could easily be avoided.

“We know unimproved grassland and its management is hugely beneficial for soil life and quality, and for all the functions of soil such as water holding, filtration, carbon, and bacterial and invertebrate life and we feel it’s right this should be acknowledged.

We are not convinced that CSS adequately rewards these public goods and see no reason why there should be a delay in an unimproved grassland soils standard.

“We are pleased to see that an indication of payment rates has been revised and made available but communication around how these will dovetail with CSS and counterbalance a declining BPS will be a crucial part of gaining farmers confidence.”

Animal welfare review

In addition to the soil standards, the initial phase will also include a Moorland and Rough Grazing Standard, and an Annual Health and Welfare Review – the first component of the Animal Health and Welfare Pathway.

The integration of the Annual Health and Welfare review as part of SFI is greeted by NSA as a significant step towards supporting productivity, bringing a whole farm approach to deliver public goods.

Stocker added: “A healthy farm, with healthy animals delivers a healthy return on investment in time, money and resources.

Developing dynamic health plans, and building national health and disease pictures, sets out the path towards preventing disease, managing biosecurity and bringing efficiency into flock management practices.”

The detail on the Moorland standard the NSA believes is still lacking with payment rates still currently under development.

While the NSA is keen that farmers receive further details as soon as possible the association also accepts it is important to get this standard as practical and effective as possible.

Stocker concluded: “As so much of the new detail is part of the transition from current environmental schemes and BPS payment, the NSA is now asking for more clarity on how new schemes will align with the current ones and the levels of payments to be expected.”