Farmers Paul Hunter and Caroline Harrison met Defra minister Victoria Prentis and Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak — also their local MP — in the Yorkshire Dales National Park on Friday.
Paul and Caroline are two of 18 farmers in Wensleydale and Coverdale who are piloting a payment by results agri-environment scheme, in which they get paid for conserving either traditional hay meadows or habitat for wading birds such as curlew.
The scheme is one of 67 Environmental Land Management scheme (ELMs) tests and trials taking place in England. Over the course of the next seven years ELMs will replace Countryside Stewardship and the Basic Payment scheme.
The meeting took place in a meadow near the village of West Witton.
The ministers walked to the site and discussed the principles of payment by results with the farmers and representatives of Natural England and the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority, which are running the pilot scheme in partnership.
Paul Hunter, whose meadows had twice the cover of wildflowers this summer compared with when the scheme started in 2016, said: “The alternative for me to this pilot scheme would have been to plough up the meadows and re-seed with more productive grasses. But this scheme has provided an income and it has given the decision making back to the farmer.”
Caroline Harrison, who is managing a 30-acre pasture in the wading birds part of the scheme, said: “We need to improve the way money is paid to farmers. The approach in the past has been too prescriptive.
“We need flexibility and freedom to choose what needs to happen and when. We know when the birds are going to nest — it can vary each year — and can take out the cattle and sheep at the right time.
“Set dates are no good. Money helps, too. If there’s no money in it, people are going to leave hill farming.”
Park authority chairman Neil Heseltine said: “These hill farmers maintain the landscape that we all love. It cannot be stressed enough that they will need ELMs to make their farm businesses viable.
“I know that the ministers will have been impressed by how quickly the hay meadows and habitat for breeding waders in the scheme have been restored and enhanced.
“Mr Sunak was very taken with the phrase ‘nature friendly farming’. That is the sort of farming we would like the Government to support here, with livestock being bred and reared in the hills in a way which conserves and enhances wildlife.”
Victoria Prentis said: “I look forward to working closely with more farmers, land managers and environmentalists like those I have met today from all over the country to design a scheme that will benefit the wide variety of farming systems we have in England today.”