Paying farmers to restore natural habitat on England’s least productive land would both boost their income and increase wild bird populations by almost 50% by 2050, according to a new study.
Environmental think tank Green Alliance is calling for the Government to allocate £600 million of the £2.4 billion annual farming budget to restoring peatland, heathland and woodland.
The poorest quality land produces just 0.5% of the food we eat, and in its study Green Alliance found incentivising farmers to return it to nature would boost their income from it by 20%.
Seventy percent of England’s land is used for agriculture, and the industry accounts for about 12% of greenhouse gas emissions for the UK overall.
The report Land of Opportunity, published on Monday, said that the plan also had the potential to deliver over half the carbon savings needed from agriculture and land use by 2035.
To hit net zero across the whole economy, land use must be carbon negative before 2050, according to research by the Government’s advisory body on climate change.
Green Alliance said its plan for a “three pronged” agricultural system would help farmers as they try and navigate soaring fuel and fertiliser costs, as well as record heat and unprecedented drought.
Under the system, the least productive land would be used to provide greenhouse gas removal and to expand habitat for wildlife.
The second prong would see the majority of food grown on the most fertile land, with farmers supported to reduce fertiliser and pesticide use to boost sustainability without lowering yields.
Lastly, farmers of the remaining land would be offered incentives to create more space for nature, even if it results in a fall in production.
It is projected that habitat restoration would see the population of bird species increase by 48% on average, compared to a 6% decline under England’s current trajectory.
Green Alliance emphasised that blanket rewilding of farmland is not the solution, as there are many species that thrive in nature-friendly farmed environments, rather than wilder habitats.
It said the system would not require any additional funding, and would help farmers as they adjust to the withdrawal of the Basic Payment Scheme, a system of EU-wide subsidies.
The scheme is being replaced by a series of environmental land management systems, where farmers are given “public money for public goods,” including restoring natural habitat.
But Green Alliance warned that delays to reforms is leaving producers in limbo, with many facing a financial loss in the coming years.
Post-Brexit, ministers set out a three strand plan for nature, large scale landscape recovery projects, incentives for sustainable farming and local projects such as meadows or hedgerows creation.
Each strand had been expected to be allocated one-third of the farming budget, or £800 million.
But in June the Government said it would spend £50 million on the landscape recovery element over the next three years, with plans to choose up to 15 pilots from 51 applications this summer.
Officials insisted the plans for the scheme had not changed but said they will not have fixed funding allocations for different strands as they want the flexibility within the overall budget.
Green Alliance said its plan would see farms on unproductive land, known as “less favoured areas” (LFAs), being paid £775 per hectare a year for habitat creation.
According to its analysis, if the system were to be adopted restoring 50 hectares of land on a holding would give annual returns of £28,000, once costs are accounted for.
It compares to average returns of £23,400 for the whole farm business currently.
James Elliott, senior policy adviser at Green Alliance, said: “The Government looked to set to realise a genuine Brexit opportunity when developing new plans for agriculture, but there are now fears we will return to a climate destructive EU-style system or ignite a race to the bottom where farmers and the environment both lose.
“This is about making sure we use the least productive land in the best way, boosting farmer incomes while restoring nature and starting to tackle the increasingly destructive effects of climate change.”
Tom Lancaster, head of farming and land management policy at the RSPB, said: “Land is a finite resource with many competing demands placed upon it.
“We need space for nature, climate change mitigation and adaptation, and food and timber production.”
He added: “This report shows the vital role farmers and land managers will play in achieving all this and more.”
Last month, the Environment Agency went even further than Green Alliance, calling for one-fifth of the UK’s agricultural land to be given over to projects to reduce emissions and sequester carbon.
A Defra spokesman said: “The land-based subsidies retained from the EU did nothing for food production or the environment.
“We have always been clear that farming and the environment must go hand in hand.
“We have committed to maintain all of the agricultural funding this Parliament and it will be for each farmer to choose what agreement works best for their business.
“We committed to follow demand for our schemes in a way that supports our outcomes.”
David Exwood, vice president of the National Farmers Union, said: “With farmers playing a crucial role in managing 70% of our iconic landscapes, agriculture can deliver positive solutions regarding food security and biodiversity.
“Future schemes must fit farming practices and reward and encourage farmers.”