Two females sit on top of an outdoor site looking over the view

Response to the Future Agricultural Policy Proposals for Northern Ireland

16th February 2022

15th February 2022

Re: Response to the Future Agricultural Policy Proposals for Northern Ireland

Dear NI Future Agri Policy team,

Outscape welcomes the opportunity to respond to the Future Agricultural Policy Proposals. As a not-for profit organisation who make it easier for people to responsibly enjoy the outdoors and hold the vision of ‘a more active and healthy society appreciating the outdoors’, our response adds most value to the ‘Farming for Nature’ Package. Over the course of the consultation process, we have engaged via NIEA Officers and policy forums (e.g., Northern Ireland Environment Link and the National Outdoor Recreation Forum) and appreciate that our eNGO partners are better placed to provide input on other seven Packages and Measures included within the Proposals. To help structure our response, the suggested questions within the ‘Farming for Nature’ section of the Consultation document are used below.

However, before getting into the detail of our response, it is important to outline how connecting people to nature helps all demographic groups reap the many health and wellbeing, social, economic, and environmental benefits that come from being more engaged and active in the outdoors. Research from the People in the Outdoors Monitor for Northern Ireland (POMNI) shows that in the past 12 months, 7 in 10 adults visited the outdoors for leisure at least once a week (71%). The most common activities undertaken were short walks (<2 miles or an hour), dog walking, spending time playing with children and running (61%, 30%, 17% and 11% respectively). Outdoor recreation participants gain a wide range of benefits – most notably over three quarters (78%) state that time outdoors is good for their wellbeing, making them feel calm and relaxed and/or refreshed and revitalised. The physical health benefits of spending time outdoors are also important with two in three taking visits for exercise, health, or fitness reasons (67%).


Views on the suggested policy proposals and environmental principles to be incorporated within the Farming for Nature Package?

 ORNI welcomed the ambition set out in the draft Environment Strategy under the Strategic Environment Outcome 2: ‘Healthy and accessible environment and landscape everyone can connect with and enjoy’ and the strong focus on ‘Connecting People to the Environment: Outdoor Recreation and Natural Space Provision’. Our key concern is the current lack of reference to a programme that would allow farmers / landowners to receive financial payment for facilitating permissive access. We feel there is a clear disconnect between this ambition and the Future Agricultural Policy Proposals and that an opportunity is missed if a scheme to facilitate connecting people to nature is not included within the final Agricultural Policy. Such a scheme would allow farmers/landowners to receive financial payment for facilitating access. Importantly, the scheme would be voluntary and provide payments in support of new or enhanced facilities that provide access to land or water.

This proposal was previously raised in stakeholder sessions back in 2019 and 2020 and earlier consultation documents issued by the Department that considered other ecosystem services that would add to farm diversification. Furthermore, Minister Poots indicated support for it, and for example outlined that improving access to nature is key to achieving the following targets outlined in the Green Growth Strategy and Delivery Framework:

  • Delivering measurable and population-wide improvements in wellbeing, focusing on educational, social, and economic benefits associated with the connection between people and their environment.
  • Developing natural green connectors and corridors across cities, towns, and landscapes, connecting people and their environment.

While such a scheme may not be a priority to the Department now, we strongly urge that it be included within the portfolio of ‘Farming for Nature’ schemes that will be needed to help farmers diversify income as a) funding for the ‘Resilience Measure’ decreases overtime, and b) the agricultural sector moves intentionally towards meeting the targets to be agreed in the Climate Change Bill currently going through the Northern Ireland Assembly.


Views on proposals to prioritise actions through environmental improvements to reverse the trends in nature decline by creating and restoring habitats that are important for species diversity

ORNI is concerned by the deterioration of biodiversity and want to work with others to see nature thrive. Crucial to this is the improved management of the wider landscape to make room for people and nature, increasing the provision of local greenspaces and green infrastructure, and building in measurable targets so we can be assured progress is being made. POMNI data reveals that nature connection is a key motivator (41%) for people engaging with nature and that those who visit the outdoors more have greater concern for the environment and demonstrate more pro-environmental behaviours. So, there is strong link between connecting people with nature and improving people’s concern and care for nature – a key mindset required to turn the curve on biodiversity decline and meet our climate and environment targets.

The evidence from POMNI on participation, benefits and barriers to outdoor recreation has led to the following measurable 2050 targets being included within the draft Environment Strategy:

  • 90% of households have publicly accessible quality natural space >2ha within 400m of their home and at least one site >20ha in size within 2km.
  • 90% of the population visiting the natural outdoors at least once week.

To achieve these targets a significant amount of new access, in both rural and built-up areas, would need to be established. Given this, it seems illogical not to include an option for recreational access within the ‘Farming for Nature’ Package.

Furthermore, Agriculture Policy could help level up a crucial area of disparity across Northern Ireland. POMNI data reveals that access to greenspace and off-road trails is not equal and tends to be lower for residents of rural areas than those who live in urban areas. In response to a question about whether local paths and trails were ‘within easy walking distance’, 73% of urban residents agreed this was true, compared to only 56% of rural residents. In real terms, this means that many living in rural areas are forced to walk on dangerous roads and drive considerable distances to safe off-road trails and greenspaces with public access.

Facilitating access to rural communities may be of particular interest to farmers who are keen to set aside strips of land for biodiversity schemes, as well as farmers who have land neighbouring rural hamlets, villages, and towns where there is currently no accessible greenspace, and areas of countryside where there is a high demand for informal access (e.g., upland areas such as the Mournes, the Sperrins, and the Glens of Antrim). The Greenspace Layer NI that will be launched later this year will provide the first authoritative map of all publicly accessible greenspace and off-road trails, and this could be used to assist the Department in gap analysis to understand where land access would bring the most value and public good to rural communities. This approach would help DAERA meet the statutory requirements of the Rural Needs Act which is to ensure that all proposals address rural issues, and lead to a more active and healthy society appreciating the outdoors closer to home, more sustainably and more equitably.


Specific suggestions for other quick win management actions

In addition to the ‘quick wins’ outlined already in the ‘Farming for Nature’ Package, such as payment for hedgerow creation, extending field margins, and riparian buffer strips, payment could also be included for facilitating access to these marginal but biodiverse-rich strips of land. For example, if a farmer plants out buffer strips between their land and a river, they could also receive additional payment for facilitating access to this strip of land no longer in use for livestock grazing or crop production.

This would be a treble win – bringing biodiversity improvements and access improvements, as well as improving the sustainability of farms as we move into the future. Such payments could include hard and soft measures, with the latter related to physical actions (e.g., stile construction and maintenance, water management on paths, demarcation of route by hedge-planting etc), and/or engagement actions (e.g., hosting farm visits for walking clubs or school groups, other face-to-face engagement with recreational users, attending training in path maintenance skills). Such measures would contribute to higher quality experiences for both farmers and the public, as well as minimising disruption to farming, providing farm income and improved public understanding of agriculture. There should be lots of new opportunity for this, as the Proposal sets out that ‘participants in Farming for Nature schemes will be incentivised to work towards managing at least 10% of their land under biodiversity measures’ (pg. 49).


Views on proposals to introduce ‘Test and Learn’ pilots and specific suggestions for other components that could be incorporated into the pilots

We are encouraged that the Department is still considering other schemes that could be tested in the Nature for Farming pilots, and we strongly urge that scoping work is undertaken to develop a land access pilot to learn how such a scheme would work beneficially for farmers and their local communities.

We agree that ‘As we monitor progress towards the objectives/outcomes of these higher-level strategies (as well as for this policy), the design of our agricultural support policies and schemes will evolve over time to ensure that this policy lever is used to good effect to deliver, not only on our legal and governance responsibilities, but on what is important to society more generally.’

To aid future policy development, ORNI would welcome the opportunity to assist the Department in scoping this out, in conjunction with other key stakeholders such as the Ulster Farmers Union who have indicated support for such a scheme if properly co-designed and managed. Rather than advocate the PROW model in GB, we would urge permissive land access in the form of Community Trails to provide safe recreational opportunities within easy walking distance and connect rural communities to their green space(s) and to each other. There is an opportunity currently for the access situation to be enhanced through new Agricultural Policy that seeks collaboration and co-design with the farming community. Ideally, potential access projects would be included in outdoor recreation strategies, Community Trail plans or comparable strategic documents produced by Councils or other land management organisations. As a step towards this a small number of pilot projects in chosen localities could provide a useful learning exercise for farmers and other stakeholders.


Specific suggestions for partnership delivery models that will encourage collaborative working?

 While the benefits of incorporating access into future farm payments would bring unquestionable public good in terms of health and wellbeing and allow farms to further diversify incomes in areas where there is recreational demand, creating the scheme will be complex and would require further scoping and partnership working between farmers, local communities, and recreational users. It would also require a lot of thinking, imagination, innovation, commitment, and collaboration within DAERA. We are keen to assist and believe that our expertise built up over 20+ years regarding outdoor recreation and access, as well as our recent work in the Republic of Ireland for the Department of Rural and Community Development on the ‘Walks Scheme’ and good relationships with the Ulster Farmers Union means we are well placed to scope out for the Department what any new proposal would look like and how it would work.

In our view there is a direct correlation between the public’s enjoyment of nature and securing goodwill towards public funding of agricultural support schemes. It is therefore vital that this opportunity is taken to provide for a greater level of recreational activity which will benefit rural communities and public health.

These are our initial thoughts on these Proposals, and we look forward to contributing to them further as they develop.

Yours sincerely,

Dr Elizabeth Rogers
Project Officer – Outscape