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Nidderdale AONB Hay Making (c) Paul Harris

Farming for the Nation: Environmental Land Management Scheme

Bringing common threads together

One of the key benefits of a collaborative T&T is the ability to look at various themes across different settings. The AONB T&T spans uplands and valleys, arable and pastoral farming, flood remediation and drought management. There are themes that run across several projects, including co-design and collaboration, biodiversity, connectivity, data use and economic viability. All 12 projects are working on how to create practical and effective Land Management Plans that will bring significant environmental benefits.

Press the play button to explore this presentation on Biodiversity at your leisure. You can expand the presentation by clicking on the double arrow at the bottom right corner.

What is spatial prioritisation and what does it mean in the context of ELMS?

The success of ELMS relies on identifying the right action for the right location: there needs to be a mechanism to identify which activities individual farmers and landowners should carry out to increase the supply of public goods (fresh air and water, flood and drought remediation, biodiversity etc). For example, it might seem that planting new woodland is a good thing because it will increase soil carbon sequestration and reduce rainwater runoff. However, in the wrong place it could damage habitat that is key to protected species. Hence spatial prioritisation: identification of the interventions that will provide most benefit and (equally importantly) minimise any detrimental effect. This information will be used to create a Land Management Plan, the ‘contract’ which details actions farmers and landowners will carry out as part of ELMS.

Each AONB has a statutory requirement to create a Management Plan every 5 years, which identifies priorities for conservation and enhancement (not to be confused with the new ELMS Land Management Plans). This is at a broad AONB-wide scale, and forms the link between national priorities and local needs. Management Plans contain a wealth of information – the ELMS T&T is studying how AONBs can best work with landowners and managers to help them develop meaningful farm- and farm cluster-scale Land Management Plans (LMPs) from landscape-scale priorities.

A couple on a quad in a field and hedgerows landscape

Natural Capital and Ecosystem Services

Many AONB Management Plans take a Natural Capital and Ecosystem Services approach. Here are definitions (for more information watch this video by the Westcountry Rivers Trust):

Natural Capital – the world’s stocks of natural assets, including air, soil, water, mineral, flora and fauna.

Ecosystem Services – the many benefits humans receive from healthy ecosystems, such as pollination of crops, clean air, flood and drought mitigation, and physical and mental wellbeing.

Ecosystem services are essentially comparable to public goods; by managing our natural capital assets effectively we can maintain healthy ecosystems and increase the supply of public goods.

If you’d like to know more, take a look at the Blackdown Hills AONB’s case study.


Good data is an essential part of translating AONB Management Plan objectives to detailed farm-scale LMPs. But what is good data in this context, can you have too much of it, what if your data isn’t of the best quality, and how do you make it relevant at a small scale?

A June virtual workshop lead by the NAAONB for participating AONBs discussed findings so far, and looked at the way forward. This section summarises the results of the workshop.

Existing data

AONBs already have a wealth of information that will support LMP development Landscape Character Assessments, State of the AONB reports (see the Tamar Valley AONB’s report for more information), and Landscape Design Guides amongst others – the results of a survey of participating AONBs are shown here:

Diagram on the Relevance of other AONB documents to ELM delivery

They also have access to a wide range of external datasets – local species recovery plans, natural capital maps, landscape strategy, landscape permeability, priority habitat mapping, historic field boundaries study and many, many more:

Diagram on the Relevance of other organisations' documents to ELM delivery

Considerations when using data for spatial prioritisation

  • Having too much data is as big a problem as not having enough - a balance is needed to inform decisions at a farm level without having too much (particularly poor-quality data) that overwhelms and confuses decision making. Similarly, ‘bad data’ (out of date or low resolution) can be worse than no data.
  • While low resolution data can be a problem, so is over-crowded data which makes it difficult to reveal priorities. Identifying data that isn’t useful is just as important as identifying good datasets.

Filling gaps in data (for example peat depth data) can be expensive and resource-intensive, but AONBs agree that ELMS justifies national investment in filling gaps in important data. Participating AONBs have identified gaps in data and datasets they would like to acquire:

Table on existing data to acquired as well as significant gaps identified
  • Perhaps most important of all, data will only take us so far: local knowledge is needed to contextualise and understand the significance of data. Ground truthing using local expertise will be an essential part of the process.

Work that has already been done, and what is planned

A considerable amount of work has already been carried out, and there’s more to come. In a number of instances, initially work has focused on identifying priority zones to study in more detail as part of the T&T:

Table presenting work already done and work planed in terms of using data to inform spatial prioritisation

Early Findings

While we are still in the early stages of T&T, there are some initial findings which are directing future work:

  • Relevant policies and actions from Management Plans should contribute to new spatial priority guidance for ELMS applicants, in particular AONB Special Qualities. Combined with a range of other AONB and externally produced documents, they form a key source for ELMS targeting statements.
  • In some instances, spatial prioritisation will entail collaboration between farms. A prime example is that of natural flood management and water quality, which need to be prioritised at a catchment scale. Landscape Character Areas work well in this situation, by providing a unifying way of maximising the co-benefits provided by different types of intervention.
  • The impending preparation of Local Nature Recovery Strategies will create essential information for ELMS targeting, but won’t entirely fulfil the brief, so additional work will be needed to translate them for ELMS.
  • Spatial priorities needed to be nested at different scales, enabling the priorities that are appropriate in a sub-catchment to be identified from larger national and sub-regional priorities.
  • Discussions should extend beyond AONB boundaries to surrounding landscapes. As recommended in the Glover Landscapes Review, this would ensure skills and approaches are more widely shared.
  • A need has been identified to prepare succinct and farmer-focused ‘Statements of ELMS Priorities’ covering topics such as habitats, natural processes and climate change, drawing on existing documents. They must be simple to use at a holding-scale and contain consistent, joined-up messages.

The approaches utilised by AONBs

There are as many ways of using data as there are datasets to be interpreted. Here are examples from AONBs taking part in the ELMS T&T:

Dorset AONB

Natural Capital and Ecosystem Services Mapping, by the Westcountry Rivers Trust

Blackdown Hills AONB

Mapping to support an Environmental Land Management scheme trial 2020

What comes next

As trials continue, we will have more information on how various broad-scale datasets can be used to support spatial prioritisation. We will publish findings here, so check back over the coming months.

Good Advice and Guidance: a key to ELM’s success

The availability and quality of advice and information for farmers and land managers has been a key element of successful agri-environment schemes over the past few decades. Conversely, poor advice can have a severe impact, reducing take-up of schemes. Providing good advice at the appropriate times is critical, as is the way it’s delivered. Right from the start, a central thread in all pf the AONB ELMS T&T projects has been a desire from farmers to have concise, clear, easy-to-use advice that is reliable and written in ‘their’ language. This needs to do 2 things: support creation of Land Management Plans (LMPs), the ‘contract’ that lays out what will be delivered as part of ELMS, and provide ongoing support to ensure the actions they take on their land succeed.

The AONBs taking part in Tests and Trials are looking at how to provide advice and guidance, and the diversity of the projects is producing a host of different ideas. The NAAONB hosted 2 online workshops for the participating AONBs in August 2020, sharing results to date and sparking discussion on ideas for the future. A whistle-stop summary of the approach of some of the participating AONBs is given in the table below.

AONB Comments
Forest of Bowland (part of the Northern Uplands T&T) 
The Forest of Bowland AONB is looking in depth at the advice needed by farmers. Conclusions so far:
  • LMPs should be advisory as well as providing the backbone of the agreement.
  • Working with farmers, the AONB is creating a ‘statement of priorities’ which will give clear direction on what should be focused on to deliver public goods.
  • Farmers need access to well-managed, up-to-date data.
  • The AONB is looking at ways to translate rafts of data in a clear way. Maps are a popular way of summarising information.
  • Data needs to be used in conjunction with local knowledge to be effective.
  • Farmers want a high-quality scheme with targeted advice to deliver good results, without having to pay upfront.
In summary, it’s key that farmers have ownership of and confidence in the scheme so it is farmer-led, while being supported with good data and advice.
Kent Downs
There are 3 Kent projects, looking at viticulture, access to protected landscapes, and flood/drought remediation. The niche nature of viticulture in particular will require specialist advisors (and conveners – see below).
Farmers are keen to avoid incurring any upfront costs while creating their LMP. Smaller holdings would be disproportionately affected by having to pay for support before payments start coming in.
The AONB is focussing on co-design of LMPs with the farmer/land manager. The are creating a Land Management Framework, which form the farmer’s handbook on how to apply ELMS on his land.
The team is currently looking at how to direct farmers to the right advice for them. They are working on a decision tree format; farmers start with the location of their land, the farm type and their interests. Having identified these main elements, they will be guided towards actions that apply, and then to bespoke advice on what they could be doing and where.

The role of conveners

It quickly became clear that there are huge complexities in providing good advice and information. There is a very real risk of overwhelm – there is a multitude of data available of variable quality, and farmers generally don’t have the time, expertise or inclination to wade through endless datasets, trawling for the golden nuggets that apply to them. The process needs to be facilitated so they can quickly find what they need.

The workshop generated discussion about ‘conveners’ – how to create a font of all knowledge on where to get the right advice. A convener would:

  • Hold a directory of information on advisors and their areas of expertise, including accreditation where appropriate
  • Work with key bodies to coordinate input
  • Liaise with farmers and advisors to suggest the right advisors at the right time, while giving them the freedom to choose who to engage
  • Liaise between advisors to ensure the advice given to a holding isn’t contradictory
  • Promote buy-in to ELMS and give a clear direction of travel.

AONBs are well positioned to take on the role of convener as they already have connections with a wide range of partners. To maintain these good relationships and the integrity of the system, it’s important that conveners are seen as enablers and not enforcers of ELMS. Similarly, there should be a clear division between advisors (chosen by farmers) and conveners (a strategic role). The farmer/advisor relationship is fundamental, and this distinction would support its development.

The convener would work with existing networks to increase engagement. Farmers are more likely to take part if they talk to another farmer already engaged in ELMS, so farmer networks are key. In East Devon there is a farm facilitation group which brings advisors in and runs training; farmers then decide who to work with. Tapping into these existing networks will aid engagement.

Several AONBs expressed concern at how conveners might be assigned geographically. Nature-based schemes work best when administered according to landscape boundaries, not administrative ones. There was widespread concern that conveners might be assigned according to county boundaries, which raises a number of issues. Some protected landscapes cross several county boundaries, causing confusion on who to go to for advice. Local authorities at county level generally don’t have the specific expertise needed to be effective conveners. Farmers aren’t keen on dealing with people involved in planning! Significantly, the Glover Landscapes Review stated that national landscapes should not be divided up along county boundaries.

In terms of information, some AONBs may also have capacity to provide specific advice, but as many teams are small this won’t be the case for all. In some instances, providing advisors would put AONBs in competition with bodies they currently work collaboratively with and so wouldn’t be appropriate. It’s likely that any AONB advisors would fill gaps rather than take on wide-reaching advisory responsibilities.

The next quarterly ELMS report will have a focus on the potential role of conveners.