Monday, 17 February 2014

Systemic solutions at the landscape-water interface: don’t be put off by the title!

Kate Russell of the Central Association of Agricultural Valuers explores the role advisers can play in supporting the management of land and water following the recent landbridge-sponsored workshop ‘Systemic solutions at the landscape-water interface’

Despite the unlikely venue, and a title that might have seemed off-putting to some, a day at Bristol Aquarium discussing ways to secure value from non-market “ecosystem services” proved to be time well spent.

There is a great deal of policy interest in finding ways to incentivise farmers and land managers to deliver goods or services, such as peat restoration or improved water quality, which are not typically paid for by traditional markets. With competing demands on a smaller rural development budget, policy makers hope that others – such as water companies – will step into the breach and offer new funding streams.  However, despite the focus on need driving the debate, less thought has perhaps been given to how those services will finally be secured – what would make it attractive for a landholder (with the many issues that bear on him) to sell the use of his land in such ways?

The opportunities may be most obvious where there is a clear cost saving for the private sector and examples offered to delegates included the use of integrated constructed wetlands as an alternative to traditional (and costly) water treatment works and the use of agronomists employed by a water company to advise farmers on specific actions to reduce nitrate or metaldehyde pollution in target catchments, so removing pollution at source. The lesson here was that where there is a “buyer” with an identified need, it can be possible to incentivise “sellers” to meet that need.

We at the Central Association of Agricultural Valuers can see the prospect for commercial deals to be done in the market place where there is sufficient common ground between the parties, with the need for professional advice on their options. A commercial deal would be a more practical and sustainable long term solution than relying on funding through schemes such as the (now effectively closed) Higher Level Stewardship Scheme, which is being used to fund some of the examples quoted to delegates. Those schemes are time limited (HLS has been long at 10 years) yet the agreements needed here may run for much longer.  Moreover, the funds do not come directly from the “buyer” – what does that say about the buyer’s commitment? Changes to land management which deliver hydrological benefits can have very long term implications for land use and so are better dealt with by a longer term agreement with the buyer paying directly for the services provided to them.

Our day at Bristol Aquarium could not hope to provide all the answers to these and other important questions – such as “how do you value a healthy water catchment?” – but it was useful in bringing together, in stimulating debate, academics and policy makers with those who are involved in advising farmers and land managers. I hope to be part of the continuing conversation on this topic so that we can try to develop practical win-win solutions, husbanding and harvesting the environment to benefit farmers, the wider community and the future.

Kate Russell
Central Association of Agricultural Valuers

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