How will the new farm subsidies in Wales impact rivers? 

Farm subsidies in Wales are changing. How the new Sustainable Farming Scheme is set up will significantly impact biodiversity in Wales, including the river Dee and its wildlife.  

The new scheme is set up so farms will receive payments for undertaking universal actions. In future, they will also get extra payments for delivering optional and collaborative actions. 

There are 17 universal actions in the consultation, not all of which will impact rivers. We’ve picked out the ones that will most impact rivers:

Universal action 3:  

Soil health and nutrient planning. Healthy soils with the correct levels of nutrients are vital to avoid polluting runoff into rivers. Some of this action is already required under the 2021 water resources regs, so it is already required to be part of the scheme. 

Universal action 4: 

Farmers must sow a cover crop to avoid bare fields over winter. This will greatly benefit rivers, helping to reduce soil erosion over winter, particularly a problem from Maize stubble. 

This is also a problem for forage crops where they are grazed down to bare earth. Currently, the action only needs a 5m buffer for these crops; this on its own will not be able to trap all the runoff from these bare fields. 

Universal action 6:  

Manage peatland. Peatland is a massive store of water in the uplands, helping to reduce the impact of droughts and floods. It’s good to see support for farms to manage them; it is a key universal action that all farms with peatland can access. 

Universal action 7: 

Habitat maintenance. Aims, outcomes and restrictions will be required for semi-natural habitats on the farm. I would like to see rivers and riparian corridors included as habitats in their own right, as they need particular management requirements. 

Universal action 9:  

Work with Natural Resources Wales to create a management plan for all protected sites. The river Dee is a protected site, so seeing this action in place is good. 

Does Natural Resources Wales have the capacity to create all these plans? I think there is a role for other organisations and consultants to help. 

Universal action 10:  

Create ponds and scrapes. An obvious benefit to rivers. It will store more water in the landscape, which will help reduce downstream flooding and drought. A nice, clear, easy action but will need investment from farms to put in place.

Universal action 13.  

All farms must have 10% tree cover across the farmed area. More trees mean more infiltration and less overland flow, which benefits rivers. However, this is a controversial requirement as it could mean taking land out of production. 

It’s good to see that this includes agroforestry, and it should include hedgerows. These both provide benefits for water quality and reduce the impacts on food production. 

Overall, the scheme will make a significant improvement to rivers. However, to comply, investing time and money in farms is significant. If the payments are insufficient, many farms cannot take up the offer, and the landscape-wide benefits will be lost. 

Also, the scheme could be made more attractive by making it simpler. The paperwork-heavy options and anything already required under existing regulations could be removed. A simpler scheme will cost less for a farm to implement, making it more attractive. 

The full consultation can be read here: https://www.gov.wales/sustainable-farming-scheme-consultation