Rebecca Pow, the MP for Taunton Deane and environment minister, chose a Wellington business as the venue for a major announcement. Speaking from the Blue Pantry, a ‘zero waste’ grocery shop, Ms Pow answered questions about the government’s new Environmental Improvement Plan in a media briefing on Monday ahead of today's announcement.  

The new plan lists pledges, commitments and targets designed to “boost green growth, create new jobs and support the 70,000 people already working in conservation and the environment.”  

Rebecca Pow giving a broadcast interview from the Blue Pantry

These include a “five-year delivery plan to tackle pollution in the air, our waters, and on land” and a commitment to “creating and restoring wildlife habitats.”  The ambition of the fresh measures is said to be to “halt the decline of nature by 2030 and then reverse it.”  

Among the many commitments set out, one was a “multi-million pound Species Survival Fund to protect our rarest species – from hedgehogs to red squirrels.” 

The Wellington Weekly News asked how many millions would be available as part of the Species Survival Fund. She said: “Multi, multi millions. It’s very much to supply and make proposals for the different projects.

"There are some examples up and running already like in North Yorkshire, the red squirrels, and there’s some government funding but also partnership funding from other conservation organisations, working with the farmers if it’s on their land to create habitats for particular species, an example would be red squirrels.” 

The government plan contained a commitment that by 2030 80 per cent of landowners and farmers would have adopted ‘nature friendly farming’ across 10 to 15 per cent of their land. I asked Ms Pow what was meant by ‘nature friendly farming’. 

“Our farmers are very important, a very important part of this whole new world of restoring nature. Under our new schemes for environmental land management we have got various planks that farmers can choose, so for example it could mean hedgerows.

"We’ve got plans to get planted 30,000 miles of hedgerows by 2037 and that obviously involves our farmers. But also to plant woodland corridors along our rivers and that really is great for nature and wildlife but it’s also very beautiful and reduces flooding and for stopping the run off of soil into rivers.

"We’ve got an aim to plant 3000 hectares of woods along rivers. Of the actions that we’re encouraging farmers to take, another one is called integrated pest management, so we reduce the use of artificial fertilisers and sprays, so in that sense it’s nature friendly farming.“ 

Ms Pow was asked if ‘nature friendly’ farming could have a detrimental impact on agricultural output. 

“Some evidence shows that once you start getting your soil health back into a good place – because one of the other major points of nature friendly farming is to improve your soil health so that the soil itself not only does it contain fantastic organisms like worms but also the microbes and fungi.

"Once that’s back in and functioning well you’re actually spending less money on fertilisers and other inputs so that there is evidence – this is called regenerative farming – it can be just as productive.” 

Ms Pow was asked if she was satisfied the plan was sufficiently concrete, and whether distant targets could be a case of kicking it into the long grass.

She said: “The whole point is this is a plan and it’s all backed up by evidence, science and data. We are setting interim targets in the plan that we are launching today which will enable us to get to our long-term legally binding targets to restore nature, to tackle air pollution, to clean up the water, and also to improve our efficiency of water supply and to reduce waste. There are very specific targets in here, backed up by relevant policies to enable that step by step approach.”  

The plan comes after last week’s acceleration of the Sustainable Farming Incentive roll-out. In a January 26 statement DEFRA Minister Thérèse Coffey said: “Six additional standards will be added to the Sustainable Farming Incentive this year, meaning farmers can receive payment for actions on hedgerows, grassland, arable and horticultural land, pest management and nutrient management.” 

She added: “The Government has also detailed what farmers will be paid to deliver through an enhanced version of the Countryside Stewardship scheme, which will see around 30 additional actions available to farmers by the end of 2024. The expansion builds on the more than 250 actions farmers can take at present with the scheme seeing a 94% increase in uptake since 2020 and is now part of thousands of farm businesses.”