Carolyne Locher speaks to Mark Bridgeman, president of the Country Land and Business Association (CLA), whose 28,000 members own or manage over half the rural land in England and Wales between them.

MARK Bridgeman has been president of the Country Land and Business Association (CLA) since November 2019. Supported by over 100 staff based in six offices in England and one in Wales, the presidency is a full-time, hands-on role.

Normally, he would be out and about, meeting with many of the CLA’s 28,000 members, who between them own or manage over half the rural land in England and Wales, representing their views to government policymakers and ministers, or feeding policy information back to them.

During the biggest upheaval in land-use policy in nearly 50 years as a result of Brexit, at a time when many are looking to the land management sector to help provide answers to the climate and nature emergencies, being CLA president is a tough ask. Add to this the difficult working conditions enforced by a global health pandemic. And yet, Mark is getting things done, including finding time in a schedule of back-to-back Zoom meetings to answer questions.

The reason for asking far more questions than an hour and quarter typically allows is that during the CLA Forestry Conference (October 2020), Mark spoke plainly when summarising the five points fed back from the CLA to the England Tree Strategy Consultation. Similarly, throughout the Q&A sessions, where having described himself as a ‘farmer with trees,’ he mentioned being involved in a ‘pilot project’, assumed to be a forerunner of the Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS). If anyone could speak (without artifice) on what a future land management policy with increased tree planting and woodland management would look like in practice, it seemed that he could.

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“There hasn’t been a lot of progress since the conference,” said Mark, from his office in Northumberland. “We are waiting for the England Tree Strategy to be announced in the next few weeks.” He outlined the stages of current environmental land management ‘test and trials’ and ‘projects’. Their success (or lack of it) will determine the future direction of policy post CAP.

DEFRA-funded, desk-based ‘test and trials’ will, if workable, lead to ‘pilot projects’, which, if successful, will morph into the future ELM scheme. “These are all part of DEFRA’s Agricultural Transition Plan that was set out in 2020. They encompass future agricultural support for land use post leaving the CAP, and ELMS is at its core. Trees will be part ELMS at every level, the entry level ‘Sustainable Farming Incentive’ as well as the wider landscape and land use change schemes, ‘Landscape Recovery’ and ‘Local Nature Recovery’.”

Addressing the nature and climate emergencies and the role of trees, new planting, and carbon sequestration and mitigation within any future policy, he said: “CLA members will be key across three areas: to improve soil to build organic matter and sequester carbon within a farmed landscape; to improve peatland; to plant trees and manage better their existing woodlands.”

How woodland management, new planting or carbon benefits are paid for is being considered within the trials, although government’s preference is for a mix of public- and private-sector funding. From the CLA perspective (using carbon payments as an example) corporate carbon offset funding is still in its infancy and works best for large-scale afforestation projects. “Our larger institutional landowning members have ambitious programmes to plant a mixture of woodland types to address climate change.”

Getting the average landowner on board will be a gradual process. “Carbon prices need to be significantly higher than £15 to £20. In time they will be.”

For the average landowner, the benefits of ELMS will come from ‘stacking’, where a landowner “can sell the public benefits, such as biodiversity enhancements or improved public access, paid through ELMS.” Other benefits, such as “carbon sequestration, water improvements or biodiversity net gain (improvements made through the planning system, a feature of the Environment Act being passed later this year) would be paid for by the private markets. The ‘Stacking’ of natural capital benefits on the same piece of land will improve the financial viability of these projects.”

Payments will most likely be calculated by measuring ‘assumed’ benefits. “We need to work out how to measure these things. We can measure carbon, and people are developing more sophisticated measures. At the moment, biodiversity is not measured. It is simple to measure water quality on a dry day, but the results will be different after a deluge of rain, with what gets washed into the system. You can do all sorts as an academic exercise, but these activities have to be replicated across 100,000 landholdings, with every small, medium and large landowner being able to do this.”

Forestry Journal: (Image: Graeme Peacock.)(Image: Graeme Peacock.)

As ‘a farmer with trees’, a landowning practitioner, Mark stewards the 2,400-acre Fallodon Estate on the Northumberland coast. He farms 1,350 acres in-hand organically, is landlord for 790 acres (three tenanted farms) and manages 220 acres of woodlands. Public access is offered across nine miles of pathways and bridleways, although with successive lockdowns this has brought challenges. “While everyone is welcome, some of those that explore the estate are not good at sticking to footpaths and let their dogs run wild, which is not great for biodiversity.

“On my own farm, we crop oats, spelt, wheat, beans and graze livestock (sheep and cattle). We rent out properties (long-term lets) and, since 2012, have run a successful tourism business. Many of the properties on the estate are heated by two biomass district heating systems. Turnover in the tourism business is far more than my forestry, but not more than farming; however, the margins are better.” His family have been members of the CLA for as long as he can remember.

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Mark, 52, studied politics at Durham University. He worked for twenty years in London and overseas as a fund manager at global investment manager Schroders. In 2006, he returned to Fallodon and converted the in-hand farm to organic, this making sense both environmentally and economically. “The produce is worth significantly more and there are fewer inputs. Offsetting that, your yield is lower, and less capital is tied up.”

During Lockdown 1, a farm carbon calculator audit found the in-hand farm to be broadly carbon neutral. “Partly because of the way we manage our land, not using fertilisers (one of the biggest detractors), and partly because of our woodlands.”

The woodland resource covers nearly 10 per cent of the estate, “rather more woodland than is typical in this area of Northumberland.” There are some small commercial plantations, but it is mostly amenity and biodiversity shelterbelts, clumps and groupings either side of the watercourses.

Mark manages the woods directly. “If we do a clearfell, we will get in an external contractor. This year I am using a local forester. Last winter, we spent half a day looking at some parcels, one clearfell and other areas of selective thinning. We have some good-quality mature Norway spruce to take out, and he will market it for sawlogs or construction. Sycamore grows particularly well here. It might be good for the future, but it is also a weed and likes to take over.”

Most timber is used in-house. Each year, 250 tonnes of (mostly) softwood thinnings and fallen timber are air dried down to 20–25 per cent and chipped, powering eighteen estate properties via two biomass boilers (199 kW/110 kW) installed in 2012/2013. “We hire in a chipper every nine months and store the chip in a couple of bays in the hay shed.”

Over the last 10 years, the woodlands, where possible, have been expanded. When estate land was given over to development, 55 houses (since sold) on the edge of the local village, Mark planted parkland trees (clumps) and created a wetland area. One project involved planting up a heavy and wet field corner. “The field is better for it. It is a nice little copse for biodiversity and in time will benefit from ELMS.” Another further project involved removing a 1970s shelterbelt put in on a forestry scheme. “At 20 metres wide, it was far too narrow. We left the good hardwood and clearfelled the softwood. Replanting with a mixture, we made it 2.5 times wider, about 500 metres long and 50 metres wide. I am trying to work out how to do continuous-cover forestry effectively elsewhere on the estate.”

First aware of climate change through his reading, he chaired the CLA Environment Committee (2013–2015) and now sees direct evidence on his estate. “As far as forestry goes, I am on the east coast of England. April, May, June, the key periods of growth for young trees, have been especially dry during the last two years. I have noticed it in the reaction of certain types of trees and with diseases. Is this climate change? Is the disease of increased trade? Who knows what is driving it, but disease is a challenge to all of us.”

Forestry Journal: (Image: Graeme Peacock.)(Image: Graeme Peacock.)

Mark explained what being one of 54 farmers across 63 farms (covering 34,000 acres) involved in designing what it is hoped will become a pilot project actually means on the ground. “Government is working by co-design, with farmers and landowners, to trial the future of agricultural policy.”

In Mark’s corner of Northumberland, the first step was to engage local farmers. “I chaired this group because (with my CLA hat on) I knew the direction of travel. Basic payments are going. Farmers are keen to engage. Working together, there will be incentives and it makes sense to collaborate.”

The first phase, a ‘test and trial’ paper-based land management plan (framework) delivering public goods (through the Agriculture Bill) was presented to government last year. “It amalgamated 54 farmers’ objectives for their land, their natural capital assets, how they would like to improve them and how much they needed to be paid.

“We were asked to carry out a second test, outlining common objectives, such as wildlife corridors, wild bird cover, or riparian buffer strips, and to consider how a project across 60+ farms might be coordinated and incentivised. Is it a base payment for simply doing it? Or is it a premium paid for quality? If a wildlife corridor runs across my farm, great! If it runs across 25 farms, how can you incentivise collaboration?”

This second paper, about process and how people can work best together, will be fed back to DEFRA imminently to help develop their thinking. “We will be looking to get a ‘pilot scheme’ financed to see how it might work in practice.”

On his own land, Mark wants to improve wildlife corridors to create better connections and to make better use of the hedges. “In this part of the world, hedges are cut every one or two years and many of the hedgerow trees (historically ash and elm) are dead or dying back. There are fewer hedgerow trees today than 20 or 50 years ago. With ELMS, we can do interesting things by having wider corridors and by getting young trees into that landscape.”

This ‘pilot scheme’ will not contribute much to English tree-planting targets. “There is not much tree cover in this part of Northumberland, but all farmers can do a little bit. Around here, we have a lot of tenant farmers and trees have traditionally been a landlord’s responsibility. We need to think through carefully how this is done.”

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Across the UK, around 50 ‘test and trials’ or ‘pilot projects’ are underway. With the help of England members, the CLA has run and presented two. ‘Sustainable Farming and Forestry’ looked at how to incentivise land managers to manage their woods sustainably (payment rates and what they would do). The second looked at developing a ‘Gold Standard’ accreditation scheme for biodiversity and wildlife management, called ‘Wildlife Estates’.

Mark’s CLA presidency ends in November. Elected for his experience of estate and financial matters, he said: “Being a practitioner is important. When talking to members or Ministers and Defra officials, I can say ‘that doesn’t work’, or ’we have done that scheme and it works very well.”

During the pandemic, not being with the CLA team or out visiting members has been difficult. “I am stuck in my office doing everything on Zoom, from 8:30am until 6pm some days. Thankfully, technology allows us to work. Five years ago, it would not have been possible. For our members, commodity producers will be less affected than those with consumer-facing businesses. Personally, my tourism business has been a nightmare while my farm business has been fine. I am lucky to live where I do. I have children home-schooling, but we can all get outside for some fresh air, something unavailable to those living in flats in inner-city areas.”

With an English route out of lockdown mapped, the climate and nature crisis are the biggest issues facing the general public. “People are starting to grapple with the issues and government is taking it seriously rather than paying lip service, as previously.  Putting legal commitments to net zero into law puts the pressure on and decisions will need to be made around energy use and policy.”

The issue facing CLA members, indeed all land managers, is uncertainty around the implications of Brexit. Mark said: “The country’s future agricultural policy is a slow process that we must get right. There are vast numbers of consultations. We have to help and influence government for the benefit of what we think is the right thing to do.

“At the moment, there are lots of high-level goals and strap-lines, but the devil is in the detail. There are some good and innovative people working in these areas and our role is making sure that what looks good on paper in Whitehall can be translated and makes practical sense on the ground. Our members, individuals who spend their day running their farm, estate or forestry business, don’t have time to engage with everything, so it needs to be set out very clearly.”

The Sustainable Farming Incentive has been announced since the article was written. The CLA response can be found at here.

The England Trees Action Plan 2021 to 2024 has also been announced, more information is available here.

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