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NFFN NI: Policy's place in measuring nature-friendly farming progress on farms

Written by Ruairi Brogan, Policy Officer, RSPB NI

As Northern Ireland develops domestic agriculture policies to replace the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), there must be a greater focus on securing environmental objectives and outcomes on farms through sustainable land management. DAERA’s Green Growth Strategy has indicated that environmental schemes will sit at the heart of a future policy, with a clear focus on creating and maintaining thriving habitats for nature and meaningful carbon reductions. However, like any policy intervention, we must monitor its progress effectively to evaluate its successes.

The recent strategic review of the NI agri-food industry recognised that it doesn’t have a positive story to tell from an environmental perspective. Monitoring of the Environmental Farming Scheme did not take place in the first four years of its operation. The lack of monitoring up until this point made it difficult to assess the effectiveness of interventions and whether they are achieving their intended outcomes compared to a baseline scenario. By better understanding our impacts on the land, there is an opportunity to maintain our capacity to produce food and other commodities by restoring the natural resources that farming and land management depend upon. As momentum and interest build toward nature- and climate-friendly farming, farmers want to know precisely how they can take action.

Monitoring can come in the form of carbon and biodiversity audits which provide a vital benchmark for many farmers who want to identify the areas where they can reduce emissions and improve management. This has recently been done through NFFN NI’s Carbon and Biodiversity Auditing Project, which assessed 35 farms throughout Northern Ireland. This is the start of what we hope will be a large-scale roll-out of monitoring within future agricultural policy, beginning with DAERA’s Soil Nutrient Health Scheme. This scheme will help farmers work more efficiently and profitably while better understanding how they can improve soil quality, carbon sequestration and biodiversity.

More can be done to integrate monitoring and evaluation into the existing and proposed farming schemes. The move toward a hybrid payment system for Farming with Nature proposals will see farmers rewarded for their environmental outcomes and their targeted management. However, this new scheme will only work effectively with a rigorous assessment of habitats and species to match payments to secure agreed results. Innovative technologies like remote sensing and LiDAR may play an effective role in validating this work. However, they will not be appropriate in all circumstances. They may be inconsistent with an approach which focuses on providing more advice and guidance to farmers from the regulator on how to comply.

In the future, there may be opportunities for farmers, advisers, and citizens to participate in the monitoring process to improve engagement and promote awareness. However, this will not replace the need for independent expert monitoring and reporting.

Studies have shown regular monitoring and frequent evaluation alongside robust and targeted advice produce the best results for environmental farming schemes. Monitoring should be built into the design of schemes to ensure that it takes place from the outset. Particular habitats also require tailored monitoring, and scheme management plans are often agreed upon on insufficient data or out-of-date mapping. A timescale issue may also arise in terms of monitoring, as many outcomes are only delivered after the 5-year agreement. Therefore, monitoring needs to continue after the scheme ends.

Robust and effective monitoring frameworks are essential to understanding the state of our natural world and the impact of damaging activities and management efforts to protect and restore nature, such as the Future Agriculture Policy. Failing to develop such a system risks creating a false sense of progress through erroneous reporting or the absence of measuring progress at all. Effective monitoring, evaluation, reporting and valuation framework for agriculture policy includes SMART targets, availability and use of high-quality environmental data, and regular transparent reporting on a set of indicators which are clearly linked to goals and targets set at both international and national levels. Such transparent monitoring and evaluation will allow farmers to track their efforts to help nature’s recovery and the broader landscape, in line with national commitments to protecting and improving the condition of the environment.