Farmers are to receive additional payments of up to £1,000 a year for protecting nature and the environment, as the government changes post-Brexit subsidies to agriculture.

The increased payments will come under the environmental land management schemes (Elms), the cornerstone of the government’s system for replacing the EU’s much-criticised common agricultural policy (CAP).

But farming leaders said the sums were small relative to farmers’ needs, and left many details of the payments still uncertain. The National Farmers’ Union said the announcements “risked being too little, too late”.

The farming minister, Mark Spencer, announced the new payments at the Oxford Farming Conference on Thursday, a major event in the UK’s farming calendar. Ministers have been under pressure for months over Elms, as successive prime ministers last year gave conflicting signals over the future of the system.

Spencer urged farmers to take up the schemes, which reward farmers for undertaking measures to improve biodiversity and nature management on their land. “My challenge to our great industry is simple: this year, take another look at the environmental land management schemes and think about what options and grants will help support your farm,” he said.

In a stark contrast to the months of dithering over the future of Elmswhich at one point were facing the ax under Liz TrussSpencer insisted Elms were still the flagship measure in the government’s agricultural policy.

“As custodians of more than 70% of our countryside, the nation is relying on its farmers to protect our landscapes as well as produce the high-quality food we are known for, and we are increasing payment rates to ensure farmers are not out of pocket for doing the right thing by the environment,” he said.

“By increasing the investment in these schemes, I want farmers to see this stacks up for business – whatever the size of your holding.”

Spencer’s intervention was meant to shore up confidence in the government’s handling of UK agriculture amid unprecedented turmoil in the sector, driven by the cost of living crisis, soaring energy and fertilizer pricesthe impact of Covid-19 and Brexit.

But countryside experts said the government’s plans were nowhere near enough to provide a secure future for the battered sector. Payments under the previous farm support scheme, known as basic payments and based on the EU’s CAP, which rewards farmers based on the amount of land they farm, have already been cut by 20%, leaving many farmers facing hardship despite high food prices.

David Exwood, vice-president of the NFU, said: “I regret that farmers and growers are making crucial long-term decisions that are essential to running viable and profitable food-producing businesses without the vital clarity needed on Elms and options that will be available. While some of these latest changes are welcome … it risks being too little too late, especially given the current economic challenges we are experiencing, and the rapid erosion of direct payments [under the previous farm support regime].”

He added: “It’s a sad reflection of the scheme’s progress and development that NFU members know more about what they will lose in direct payments than what they will gain from taking part in these new schemes.”

Mark Tufnell, president of the Country Land and Business Association, representing nearly 30,000 landowners and rural businesses, said more urgency and more details were needed. “Today’s announcement shows the government is listening and adapting to the concerns of farmers. It reduces uncertainty, supports proper valuations and creates stronger incentives for a wider range of farms to enter into the schemes. All this is to be welcomed, but everything is moving just too slowly. We have had many promises of improvements in the future, but what we desperately need are details of payment rates and standards for 2023,” he said.

“We believe government’s policy on Elms to be potentially world-leading, but we need a world-leading government operation to underpin it. Defra [Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs] is doing good work, they just need to do it more quickly.”

Under the increase in payments, farmers will receive a new “management payment” for the first 50 hectares (123 acres) – a rate of £20 a hectare – that they enroll in the “sustainable farming incentive” (SFI) scheme, which centers on requirements to nurture soils. This should cover the administrative costs of enrollment and attract smaller businesses, according to Defra, including tenant farmers, who are currently underrepresented.

Payment rates for farmers enrolled in countryside stewardship agreements, which also require them to undertake environmental improvements, will be lifted by 10%. Rates for capital projects, such as planting new hedgerows, will be increased by about half. There are currently about 30,000 farmers involved in the countryside stewardship scheme.

Payments for woodland creation and tree health will also be updated. In total, the range of increases should amount to about £1,000 for farmers.

Daniel Zeichner, the shadow agriculture minister, said that was insufficient. “I can’t imagine people jumping and punching the ceiling saying ‘that’ll do it for me’. I don’t think that tiny, tiny amount will make a difference at all,” he said. “Unfortunately it’s hard to imagine the money that’s been lost [in direct payments] will now be replaced through environmental schemes. Farmers are losing thousands and thousands, Labor is committed to making these schemes work and unfortunately it appears there is no such commitment from this government.”

The Guardian has also revealed that uptake of the new schemes has been slow so far. Only 224 payments have been made to date under the sustainable farm incentive schemethe first step in the Elms changes.

Elms were first announced by Michael Gove as environment secretary in 2018as part of the biggest shake-up of British farming in 40 years, to replace the EU system of payments based on the amount of land farmed – which favors the biggest landowners with least need of support – with payments for protecting the countryside, a system of “public money for public goods”.

But the changes have been mired in difficulty, and farmers have been increasingly concerned as the £3bn a year of subsidies received under the EU are being gradually withdrawn.

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