Written evidence submitted by Historic England (FS0081)

Historic England evidence to EFRA Select Committee Inquiry on Food Security

Historic England is the government’s statutory adviser on the historic environment, championing historic places and helping people to understand, value and care for them. Historic England is an executive non-departmental public body, sponsored by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport.

Key Question:

How could the Government’s proposed land use strategy for England improve food security? What balance should be stuck between land use for food production and other goals – such as environmental benefit?

Land use strategy in England is undergoing a seven-year period of transition that will see some of the biggest changes to agricultural grant aid in a generation. The transition from Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) to Environmental Land Management scheme (ELMs) provides a unique opportunity to strike the right balance for the need to produce sustainable, affordable food and deliver high level environmental outcomes for nature and the historic environment.

As statutory advisor to HM Government for the historic environment, Historic England continues to support the development of ELMs. Our advisors participate in several thematic working groups charged with the development of standards and options set to be offered under the Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI), Local Nature Recovery (LNR) and Landscape Recovery (LR).

Within ELMs development, and where appropriate, our advisors have highlighted the opportunities for implementing the management of heritage as a “co-benefit” within ELMs. This recognises that the natural and historic environment are co-dependent and occupy the same spaces within rural landscapes- including prime agricultural land.

The management of rural heritage can be used as a means of supporting the delivery of the government’s key objectives, including nature recovery, mitigating and adapting to climate change, improving the quality of water and air and bolstering access to green spaces. Our historic landscapes play an important role in tourism and inward investment, both of which benefit and help sustain rural communities engaged in production, another reason why it is crucial for a land use strategy to give appropriate weighting to heritage. In recognition of the global challenges currently faces, the objective of food security has come to the foreground.

To this end, we strongly believe that the management of rural heritage can be used to strengthen food security within England, as well as the wider United Kingdom. We urge the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to ensure that heritage-related actions with ELMs and associated socio-economic measures are sufficiently recognised and funded to achieve the co-benefits they can deliver, including resilience within our food supply system, sustainability and diversification.

Investment within rural landscapes is crucial to underpin the resilience of our food supply systems, as well as supporting the rural communities and businesses delivering food production. Farmers are the custodians of the countryside and the backbone of domestic food production.

To achieve these aims, farming businesses and communities depend on rural agricultural infrastructure for their livelihoods. This infrastructure includes many heritage features, such as historic and traditional buildings including but not limited to hedges, dry stone walls, historic traditional farm buildings, and designed and/or engineered water bodies.

Dry stone walls, hedges and other linear features provide a range of regulating and supporting ecosystem services within agricultural land. For example, heritage features provide habitats for important pollinators, such as bees, butterflies, ants and moths. These environmental engineers can improve crop yield, bolster biodiversity and ensure the genetic diversity of plant fauna. Likewise, linear features host beneficial predators, such as insects, birds, amphibians and invertebrates that can attract and deliver a natural pest management system for neighbouring crops. Features also act as a means of stock management, allowing the efficient separation of breeding stocks and species for meat production and other produce. Hedges and dry stone walls, in particular, provide shelter for livestock and crops, acting as wind breaks and habitats for nesting sites. Building resilience to extreme weather patterns is an important component of adapting to and mitigating against climate change and safeguarding food production.

Environmental and Countryside Stewardship have provided grant funding to support important co-beneficial features, and there is scope within SFI, LNR and LR for similar funding to be adopted. Restoring existing infrastructure through such schemes provides an important land use benefit, as further viable land does not need to be taken out of production to achieve the same objectives. Therefore, we would encourage DEFRA to promote options within ELMs that support the restoration and maintenance of heritage linear features, especially hedges and dry stonewalls, that provide benefits to the natural and historic environment, whilst strengthening food production.

Similarly, within Environmental and Countryside Stewardship, grant options have been utilised to great success to achieve the restoration and management of rural built infrastructure. Of notable importance is the delivery of the Historic Building Restoration Grant. This capital grant helps farmers and land managers restore historic buildings for the purposes of adaptive re-use providing a means of bolstering economic resilience within farm businesses. The outcomes of such projects have included improved storage capacity for agricultural equipment, to provide premises for leasing to external businesses or diversifying their own businesses and expanding capacity for in-house production and processing.

Finally, the adoption of regenerative agricultural methods can have the joint effect of improving food production whilst protecting heritage assets. Reduced-depth tillage methods, such as minimum tillage and direct drilling, can be used to reduce the disturbance of soil and bio-matter, improving yields and strengthening soil fertility. These methods also reduce erosion, protecting topsoil. The added benefit of using such methods for heritage is the preservation of archaeological significant features above or below the soil. While their uses must be considered on a site-by-site basis, they provide a means of sustainably improving food security and protecting heritage assets in the same breath. Historic England would encourage DEFRA to ensure regenerative farming methods are available for historic environment options within ELMs.

The objectives to achieve resilience within our food supply system and protect England’s historic landscape are not mutually exclusive. Through adaption, investment and delivery, methods to protect heritage assets can actively promote the strengthening of food security, all the while preserving our unique cultural heritage for generations to come. Therefore, we would encourage DEFRA to pursue these mutually beneficial goals with renewed vigour, and curate a land use strategy where the co-benefit of heritage is utilised to its full potential.

September 2022