Paying by results

Your money is not being spent well in funding English agri-environment schemes.  This used to be what the current Defra Ministers, James Paice and Richard Benyon, said while they were in Opposition but precious little has changed since they came into positions of being able to influence things.

The agri-environment programme is voluntary for farmers – although it isn’t for the taxpayer who has to pay for it – and so no farmer is forced to participate.  The Entry Level Scheme can do a lot of good – note the rapid increase of farmland birds at the RSPB’s Hope Farm – but there are too many ‘easy’ and ‘unproductive’ options contained in the scheme so that a bit of delayed hedge-trimming and some grass margins are all that nature will get out of many farms.  More effective and productive measures such as flower-rich margins and skylark patches take a bit more effort, deliver more wildlife, but are much less widely taken up by farmers.

The failure of the scheme is not primarily farmers’ fault.  And it certainly isn’t because farmers are shunning the scheme – uptake of the scheme is high, partly because it is money for old rope in many cases.

It is partly farmers’ fault though.  First, there are plenty of farmers who know that they aren’t delivering much for wildlife and could do more but have decided on economic grounds to take the money and do the minimum.  This is fair enough in exactly the same way that it is fair enough for bankers to take the bonuses to which their contracts entitle them whether or not they are making the world a better place.  And I do mean that – I don’t blame any farmer for choosing the easy option, don’t we all when we get the chance?

Second, the NFU had a big influence on the details of the scheme when it was set up so that it would be this easy for farmers to get the money for relatively little delivery on the ground.  To be fair, the scheme was always seen as a ‘broad and shallow’ scheme which would attract many farmers to do a little for the environment – the trouble is that it is too little.  An ocean of money goes into agri-environment schemes and it delivers a few puddles of value.

Third, Defra ministers are farmers, landowners and ex-NFU employees, the lot of them, and yet they are slow to make things better for wildlife and for the taxpayer who is paying for the wildlife-friendly farming grants.

The concept of payment by results occasionally emerges during these discussions.  Why pay farmers for doing things like skylark patches when what you want is actually skylarks? Why not pay per skylark instead and then you know what you are getting and paying for it, and the ecological wisdom of the farming community can be used to deliver skylarks in whatever way they want – kill magpies, go organic, use skylark patches, adopt set-aside – whatever suits you and your skylarks best.

Payment by results is a very attractive approach. We adopt it all the time. Imagine you had a teenage child in your house and were keen for their room to be tidy.  You just might offer an incentive for tidiness to reign and I suspect that you would pay by results (you’d stick your head around the bedroom door and have a look) rather than by ‘minutes spent hidden in my bedroom claiming to be tidying it up’.  And the cost of monitoing is the tricky thing about payment by results in the countryside – how do you check the number of skylarks? And would the cost of monitoring eat up far too much of the money available to the scheme as a whole?

Recently two friends and ex-colleagues of mine have each suggested to me that there is another way to operate payment by results that could work better.  And that is the reverse auction approach.

This would entail asking landowners to bid for a pot of money to produce stated environmental outcomes – let’s stick with skylarks for now.  Those running the scheme would choose to fund those farmers who offered to deliver the most skylarks for the least amount of money.  No-one would be forced to enter the scheme (like now) but there would be an incentive actually to produce the goods and to do that as cheaply as possible – just what you want from public expenditure.

Under this scenario, organic farmers (the last time I looked there was good evidence that organic farming produced more skylarks than ‘conventional’ farming) would be able to outcompete other farmers and scoop up money for just doing what they are doing already whereas the most intensive farming systems might opt out altogether as the cost of skylark production might not appeal compared with the benefits of wheat production.

Such reverse auctions are used in other parts of the world.  They are not without problems, but then nor is the status quo.

We need a better system that delivers a much better return for the poor old taxpayer and doesn’t disadvantage the best farmers but doesn’t reward the below average farmer.  With Defra full to the gunwales with farming ministers we should, by now, have seen much more progress on this issue.


If you think that Defra is doing very well on this subject then you might not want to vote for them in the Nature of Harming ‘award’.

If you think that the NFU is a harmful influence on farmland wildlife and lets down all those farmers who are trying to do a good job, then you might want to vote for them in the Nature of Harming ‘award’.



24 Replies to “Paying by results”

  1. Great point Mark,
    As you will know GWCT has been pushing this idea for a long time. The same spectacular success that the RSPB has achieved at Hope Farm was achieved earlier at GWCT’s Allerton Project at Loddington.

    I hope this doesn’t sound like knit picking whilst avoiding the main point, however I feel that if groups like the RSPB and GWCT made a little more effort to recognise each others achievements the point would be taken more seriously by our political leaders who will then be in no doubt that we all speak with one voice.

    To return to the main point, it has to be understood that payment by results, although a great idea will result in farmers taking the quickest route to enhanced biodiversity by tackling predators. I am of course referring to foxes and corvids and not raptor persecution. So in order for this to work there needs to be a complete ecological audit on each and every farm to ensure a workable balance is achieved.

    Maybe this could be our next employment boom with thousand of ecologists being employed to do the monitoring?

    1. Owen – thank you. I think that payment by results would open up all potential routes including predator control. But the cost of predator control might be seen to be prohibitive to some in comparison with other measures – I guess it would be up to all to choose whatever measures they wanted and those who did the best job would get paid most.

      A quick search of this blog shows that I, who do not work for anyone, have mentioned Loddington at least three times in the last few months. I do know that a comparison between Loddington and Hope farms has been done and seems to be taking a long time to see the light of day in the scientific literature. It is clear that wildlife has benefitted greatly through sensible use of agri-environment schemes on both farms. You may not be right in saying that ‘the same’ success was achieved at each site – we’ll have to wait and see.

      1. I stand corrected on the not mentioning Loddington, in that case it would be good if both parties were to do the same as you’ve done.

  2. I agree that payments should be linked to success, but I see a couple of issues…
    Success might unfairly benefit the neighbours of good wildlife sites, where expanding populations spill over on to land that may not be particularly well managed for wildlife.
    Is success good numbers of Skylarks atempting to breed (easy to assess), or good numbers of offspring produced (very difficult to assess)?

    1. Barry – those are two of the snags – there are others too. And there are lots of snags with current siuation. We are snagged in snags! Not sure that being neea a wildlife site would be unfair benefit – would encourage better relations between land owners and adjacent nature reserves. Productivity impossible to measure realistically?

  3. Good Morning Mark, a very interesting post indeed and I wholeheartedly agree that Environmental Stewardship is in need of a radical overhaul. I have always liked the concept of payment for results and have given it a great deal of thought in recent years. The basic concept of good farmers being rewarded for going the extra mile to ensure their agreements deliver results for wildlife seems entirely logical, particularly for farmland birds, though maybe less so for certain farmland habitats. The cost of operating a performance related agri-environment scheme has always struck me as the major obstacle, e.g. the admin cost of setting up agreements, establishing baseline data, on-going monitoring, adjusting annual payments, dealing with the inevitable appeals from those farmers that feel short changed etc. I just cannot see Natural England and the RPA being able to deliver such a scheme in an efficient and cost effective way, a way in which hundreds of millions of pounds would not be squandered on ineffective administration and useless IT systems. Major reform of these two Govt departments is essential before any fundamental changes to agri-environment policy can be considered. But perhaps that is a debate for another day!

    If switching to a results based agri-environment policy is the best option for the future, as I think it may well be, then such a policy shift would no doubt take a number of years to set-up, allowing for stakeholder consultations, pilot schemes etc. In the meantime as the FBI continues to fall, ELS is in dire need a quick and dirty fix.
    Its not rocket science, I propose that:
    – no farm should be able to get more than 40% of total points from hedgerows and ditches.
    – historic building maintenance would be scrapped.
    – Arable options such as wild bird seed mix plots, nectar flower mix plots would be worth at least 650 points per ha.
    – that all arable/ intensive grassland farms over 40ha should include options to provide a winter seed source such as wild bird seed mix plots or unharvested conservation headlands.
    – arable/intensive grassland farms over 40ha must include an area of nectar flower mix or margins sown with a basic wildflower mix.

    Clearly some farmers would not like these changes, which is fine, they do not have to sign up. ELS is not working anyway so why waste tax payers money any further….spend the money on HLS or on piloting a results based scheme instead.

  4. My personal feeling is that ELS primarily benefits politicians and the NFU who are able to spout able what % of England is under agreement etc. In reality it is money for nothing – all economists know incentives change behaviour. However, when you provide incentives for no required change in behaviour – the public looses out.

    I would like to see all options that make no or little difference removed and more funding put into options that actually deliver something. Politicians would see the area of land in ELS decreasing initially but make the incentives right and this won’t last long. Farmers like everyone else will change what they do if it is made financially worth it.

    Of course this will mean getting Defra out in the field checking their schemes, to make sure we are not all cheating.

  5. The devil is, as ever, in the detail and the farming establishment have over many, many years done a very good job of setting the margins at a point where it’s easy to get the money and wildlife doesn’t benefit much – think back to the Environmentally Sensitive Areas and places like the Somerset levels where water levels were set just low enough to allow the conversion of pasture to arable – and many many more down the years.

    The big – and not very well kept – secret with ELS is that farmers are very, very reluctant to do anything in field but very ready to do things around the margins – the simple reason why uptake is much higher in the west/pasture compared to the east/arable.

    And on payment by results, why not a bit of Big Society with the RSPB/Farmer alliance doing the main monitoring with just spot ckecks from the Government to verify their findings ?

  6. “Maybe this could be our next employment boom with thousand of ecologists being employed to do the monitoring?”

    May I offer a hearty ‘hear hear’ to this comment, thanks Owen.
    Occasionaly Employed Ecologist.

    ….so long as we aren’t caricatured as yet more ‘career conservationists’ holding our hands out to be ‘kept in the lifestyle to which we’re accustomed’ (presumably one of scraping by month to month): see
    Written by a Mr. Ian Liddell-Grainger, MP, my persona non grata of the morning.

    Perhaps I shouldn’t allow his outmoded attitude to wind me up quite so much, but more seriously, I wonder if this sort of anti conservationist, anti science, anti ecologist, ‘farmer knows best’ attitude is secretly shared by DEFRA ministers? I don’t imagine it is (I hope), but it would certainly hamper the step up in trust that would be required for payment by results – a fantastic idea in principle – implemented and monitored with the help of the NGOs, to work.

  7. Mark, I agree wholeheartedly with the principle of payment for results but as you and others have stated this has a number of difficulties associated with it. We must remember that we are not operating in a laboratory or controlled environment, so factors outside our control may well influence the outcome. This would necessitate a longer term view of what has been or is being achieved by an individual. I would suggest that much of my work would undoubtedly create the conditions for success, but could never guarrantee it. You can’t force Skylarks nest in a particular field however “Ideal” you make it.
    It has been suggested by some of my clients that the money would be better targetted at individuals with a keen interest in conservation, allowing them to create environmental sanctuarys amongst a sea of “industrial farms”, but I am not keen on this as they would be little more than “Safari Parks” for UK wildlife.

    In my work have have seen what can be achieved by a good ELS Scheme that is well designed and well implemented, they can be hugely successful but too often they fail to reach a good enough standard. The HLS Scheme has some spectacular success stories and has been steadily improved by the generally excellent Natural England staff that administer it, despite all the administrative and management uncertainty that they are going through as an organisation.

    It is very easy (and inexpensive) to measure how much of something there is and it lends itself to good statistics for the politics of the soundbite. Measuring “Quality” – which to me is fitness for purpose – is much harder and very, very expensive.

    There has been an excellent review of the agri-environment funding that was done by the European Court of Auditors and a summary of their findings can be found here.

    This summary is quite well rounded and not as one-eyed as some of the other reviews of the findings!!

    Sorry for babling on but this is a real passion of mine and I know we can use the money better that we are currently. There is plenty of excellent advice from organisations such as GWCT, RSPB, Oakbank and others that aims to educate farmers on how to make the best use of ELS, etc for the wildlife that they already have around their farms. Too many agreements are based on the “least cost” principle which is a real missed opportunity, one that will only lead to more compulsory legislation to achieve what could have been done under the funded ELS Scheme.

    1. Ian – thank you for an excellent comment, with which I agree. It is the ‘too often they fail to reach a good enough standard’ that does worry me as we have all seen how spectacularly successful are the best of farms. There must be a way of rewarding the best and not shelling out to the worst- or maybe there isn’t? Thank you again for your comment.

      1. Thanks Mark,
        Natural England are well aware of the urgent need for better outcomes from Environmental Stewardship. This link shows you their latest plans for changes, although they are yet to be approved.

        A step in the right direction for environmental delivery, but they could also be making the scheme less atractive to existing non-contributors. There are some issues with their new suggestions too, but I agree with them in principle.


  8. I can see the merit in a results driven approach, but it has problems as already pointed out. Knowing the few farmers that I do, I think they would be very down heartened by it. One in particular has tried 2 or 3 measures to encourage the breeding of Lapwings but to no avail. In the process though they have created some splendid habitat by leaving fields fallow, increasing margins (they are in HLS) etc, with the results that Yellowhammer, Warbler and Finch numbers have shot up. Also Brown Hare are now regularly seen. But no breeding Lapwing or Curlew (another target species). The reality is that their farm on it’s own is not enough, it needs the neighbouring farmers to join in, and some predator control is necessary.
    Under a results driven approach for their target species they would have been penalized. I don’t think that’s right. In fact anything that involves ‘achieving targets’ makes me uneasy. There are too many variables.
    I’d rather see an incentivised approach, with a base line subsidy and top ups for each breeding pair of target species, as well as incentives for subsidies to be higher where neighbouring farmers join in.
    As to auction processes I can see a lot of farmers being put off by this.

    1. Gert – I tend to agree. Lots of problems with it – but quite a few problems with payment by non-results at the moment. It does seem to work, partly, in other countries and I jsut wonder whether there is a good way to do it here. Quite possibly not.

  9. Think you know the problem and answer in a few words.
    Problem is like everyone else if a farmer gets paid to trim hedge every two years and collects grant it is just like the worker clocking off at 5 o,clock,I promise you that worker is gone at that time.
    Basically we all do the minimum to collect grants or wages.
    Payment by results is fraught with even more problems,is that bird on the hedge yours or mine or half each as it is sat on the border of our farms.This of course is one of the minor problems.It just is unworkable.
    Simple solution really —change the scheme to where farmers get paid for Skylark patches,wild bird seed areas,margins with wild flowers and nectar rich plants and other procedures that are vitally important with a smaller payment for trimming hedge every two years.
    We know this will get result as the more wildlife friendly farmers are already doing these things and is far better than paying for results.

  10. Although there are obviously some very positive outcomes for wildlife from the ELS, comments here strongly suggest that overall the payments are failing wildlife. And this failure is evident in the general countryside. It rather sounds as though farmers are being given money for something most of them are not able to deliver – for a whole variety of reasons. This is not fair on the farmer, the taxpayer or the wildlife. I feel sure that the reasons for the catastrophic declines in many ‘common’ birds, insects, some mammals and flora are not going to be solved or reversed by ELS schemes or indeed HLS. These may improve the situation on at a local level but will not tackle the fundamental problems. Sadly too some species are now reduced to such low numbers [in bird terms] that small scale individual farm based schemes are not sufficient.

    For some years now I have only been able to conclude that part of the problem is that farming is subsidised. Subsidising production fueled intensification but any idea that environmental payments reduce intensification is pie in the sky. It has also led to a situation where farmers are in part paid to produce food and then paid for the food – there is no sense to this and as a result consumers are paying much more for their food than the supermarket bill. All this does is give supermarkets an opportunity to make a huge profit, government to play the ‘cheap food’ advert and the farmer to be ever more deeply trapped in the tangle. Food should not be ‘cheap’, it should be valued as it comes to our tables at a huge cost to the planet. This and the seriousness of the loss of wildlife needs to the main message to the consuming public and the politicians.

    What wildlife really needs is a nation wide improvement in habitat at a landscape scale. We are forever tinkering and never getting on with publically recognising the real issues and problems – until we do that wildlife will continue to decline. Anyone who has any doubts about how awful it is to be in a massively impoverished and undiverse [is there such a word!] environment should go to South Island, New Zealand – I spent 3 weeks there in January and I still can’t get over how depressing it was.

  11. Mark, interesting post. But why not be more radical? Why should we pay farmers to deliver a minimum level of environmental stewardship? I’d like to see farmers legally required to maintain field margins and hedgerows, manage woodlands, create simple bird habitats etc We could then make the Entry Level Scheme a legal requirement of claiming subsidies and have a much bigger pot for payment by results. Of course if farmers didn’t want to claim subsidies they’d be free to farm as they saw fit. I’m sure we called it cross compliance when we worked at the RSPB. And related to this do you have any news about who or what may be replacing FWAG? They did a lot of good in promoting schemes and wildlife friendly farming (I should also declare an interest here as I was a FWAG advisor in Marks own county of Northamptonshire). Have you heard any plans about the RSPB or the Wildlife Trusts taking over this role? Best wishes, Nick

  12. For all the problems that can exist with a new system, the important point is that the current system isn’t working at all well. The rational thing to do would be to introduce a few trials to see how this and other alternatives worked. Perhaps starting with relatively easier things that didn’t move like plants. I’ll bet if farmers were paid to produce orchids – and the price was right (do we even know what the price would be per orchid?), there would be many more orchids in 10 years time. After all farmers are in principle good at producing things on land.

  13. What a strange idea coming from a intellectual no doubt.
    Nicholas Milton wants to make it a legal requirement that farmers do exactly what he wants,legal requirement to do all sorts of things which incidentally is not what the majority want.
    If you are not careful N M you will have innocent farmers in jail who have made sure that you have had a nice easy upbringing on cheap food produced by their hard labour.
    What a relief the RSPB now take a much better view and working with farmers is producing results which Mark Knows about but does not make a controversial blog so that people like you jump on the kick farmer band wagon.
    On the back page of Telegraph today article describing how farmers near Fowlmere reserve have planted seed rich plots which now provide food for at least 500 roosting Reed Buntings.
    You are at least 10 years behind where we really are Nicholas.
    Notice that as Alistair says farmers are good at producing things on land.
    Conservationists on the other hand tend to criticise those producing cheap food even when 86% of farmers declared that they considered wildlife and environment when considering farming plans.
    When will some and it is now only some conservationists recognise that farmers also have a responsibility to produce food which is what the majority of population want otherwise we would already have the whole country as one massive wildlife reserve.
    You are a very very small minority Nicholas and with legal requirements like those that is what you will stay.

  14. Has anyone used, or knows of use of, The Environmental Damage (Prevention and Remediation) Regulations 2009. Is it an unused tool in the box?

Comments are closed.