Connecting the dots: Understanding what landscape recovery schemes could look like

Bringing landowners together through a series of workshops and site visits has opened inspiring conversations about what the future of nature-based solutions at catchment scale could look like.

Kathi Bauer, our Natural Capital Co-ordinator, writes an update on the South East Rivers Trust’s work on a national trial, funded by DEFRA, for the new agricultural subsidies programme – Environmental Land Management Schemes (ELMS).

Restoring natural processes

“So we said, ‘Yes! Just make it wetter!’” Even though landowner Mike Bax has told the story of a how we at the South East Rivers Trust delivered a project on their farm many times now, I still get excited every time he does.

The wetland restoration in Streetend Wood, Ashford, which was delivered as part of our PROWATER project to create resilience to climate change, has been in place for less than a year.

The work has restored a headwater wetland by regrading an over-deepened channel, helping to slow the flow of water downstream and retain it on site by spilling it out into its floodplain more.

This means that water reaches the main river more slowly, with benefits to flood risk and water resources further down, and the wildlife on site.

So far, we have taken members of the farmer cluster, Kent County Council, water companies, the Environment Agency, Natural England and many more to the site to tell the story of how we are trying to restore natural processes and slow flows in rivers.

Overall, we couldn’t be happier with the responses we’ve had (“It’s a triumph!” has been my favourite feedback so far).

Not all landowners want, or can afford, to do this. We have been very lucky to work with landowners such as Mike and his wife Jan, who have been nothing but supportive and open to ideas, without any financial incentive.

However, farmers have many competing pressures placed on them: prices of inputs, such as fuel to drive tractors, or seed; demands from retailers and consumers; the weather. You name it.

Visiting the Moat Farm river restoration makes discussions more tangible

Planning for the future

In many cases, even if farmers are interested in doing something to best manage land with nature in mind, finances just don’t work out.

There are currently stewardship schemes in place that are meant to provide an incentive. However, often they are not attractive for a range of reasons (though there are also examples where they have supported groups of farmers to achieve brilliant outcomes – often with the help of a passionate advisor).

However, things are changing. DEFRA (the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) is developing new schemes to make farming with nature – in a bigger, better, and more connected way – more attractive and feasible for farmers.

SERT is contributing to this development by carrying out a land management ‘Test & Trial’. This allows us to work with landowners and farmers in two catchments (the Beult and Stour) to find out what they would like these to look like in the future.

Working with groups like the farmer cluster that Mike and Jan are part of is a great way of building relationships and prompting interesting discussions. We have been working with farmer clusters through a combination of workshops and site visits.

The cluster is coordinated by Kent Wildlife Trust (and funded by Southern Water) and has been brilliant at helping farmers in the area get together and building a stronger understanding of their offering.

A farmer explains the benefits of a trial on his farm

Farmers need support

This type of work is going to be key in the future: one thing we have learnt from our engagement with farmers in the area so far is that they do not feel prepared yet for the new funding landscape.

This needs to be attractive to private investors, work long term and allow them to negotiate their own agreements and so on.

Farmers need to have enough support and advice to know what nature-based solutions are and to understand the value of the natural (and agricultural) features on their land.

A lot of the feedback we have had so far has been about people feeling uncertain and kept in the dark. They also feel that future schemes will be too hard, too complex or too time consuming.

They also worry that smaller farms will be left by the wayside, as bigger estates have more resources to put into the more ambitious, better paid schemes, and that existing good practices will not be sufficiently funded.

Capturing feedback on the different aspects of potential schemes has been a key part of the Test & Trial.

What do landowners want to see?

Among all those concerns, a vision for what the future as farmers (and many advisors and environmental groups, for that matter) want to see has also come through:

  • groups of farmers working together to co-design a vision of what their landscape could look like;
  • passionate, knowledgeable advisors who can identify additional funding streams and develop a comprehensive plan;
  • schemes that have funding for monitoring on a landscape level and can use this as an opportunity to engage local communities.

Working out what this will look like in practice is clearly not easy. We will continue working with farmers in our catchments, as well as partner organisations and our consultants 3Keel until the autumn this year on our Test & Trial to flesh out further how private funding streams could support these ambitions, and continue giving feedback to Defra about our learning.

What is clear is that, whatever policy makers decide next, the farmers we are working with have ambition and ideas – let’s hope DEFRA can foster that.

We will be holding another event for landowners in both catchments in the summer, which will be another opportunity to input on what schemes could look like in the future. Please get in touch with Kathi if you are interested, via info@southeastriverstrust.org