Natural capital: a farmers’ perspective

How can emerging natural capital markets work for small farmers across the UK?

27th March 2023

Fidelity Weston is a beef and sheep farmer based on a family-run farm in Kent, England. She’s also the honorary Vice President and former Chair of Pasture for Life, and has played other key leadership roles in local environmental organisations such as the Kent Wildlife Trust.

Unsurprisingly given her background, Fidelity is passionate about biodiversity on her farm. “Our ultimate aim on our farm is to have as much biodiversity as possible. Wildlife-friendly management is integral to how we're farming our land.”

Fidelity is paid a premium to deliver high environmental benefits through her farming methods, and in this way is building natural capital into her business model.

Her family’s 80-hectare farm produces Hereford cattle and Lleyn ewes to both Soil Association organic and Pasture for Life standards, the only certification in the UK which stipulates 100% grass or pasture-fed and grain-free diets for ruminant livestock.

In this way, she is building natural capital into her business model and, through her sales, is paid a premium to deliver high environmental benefits through her farming methods. While her farm is organic, Fidelity says that most of her customers like buying her meat because it is Pasture for Life accredited, which appeals to consumers because it chimes with their values and desire to buy 100% grass-fed.

As she says, “I think you can appeal to a group of people who value what you're doing and are basically prepared to pay a good and fair price for it”.

Fidelity's Hereford cattle are 100% grass or pasture-fed.

Alongside maintaining rigorous accreditation standards, Fidelity is using new grazing management techniques – including regular moves and longer rest periods which further benefits species diversity in the grassland and encourages wildflowers to have time to set seed.

In addition to the family farm, she grazes other people’s land on a seasonal basis in response to the growing demand for nature-based solutions, such as better soil health, in the farming sector. Many of these landowners are keen to graze cattle on their land instead of topping with a tractor in order to improve biodiversity.

In recent years, Fidelity has focussed on her grazing management in order to become more resilient to the changing climate – and the long periods of drought and heat during the spring and summer in southeast England. By using rotational grazing, she has been able to support deeper rooted plants that can withstand high temperatures and lack of water.

She can already see the benefits: “All of our fields went totally brown last year, but they've come back so much more quickly than expected. So, I would say, that is the result of regenerative and sustainable grassland management.” How can environmental benefits like these be better valued in the current food and farming system?

"Natural capital grants shouldn't just be about adding to your biodiversity, but keeping it there."

Fidelity is sceptical of capital offsetting schemes because they can lead to greenwashing and focusing on one type of natural capital in isolation, which can cause detrimental distortions. They also do not deal with one fundamental problem – which is that we need to reduce carbon overall, and they allow the polluter to continue to pollute.

However, if they are going to work “you'd have to have complete trust and openness between everybody”. She thinks there's potential for private schemes to be simpler administratively than government schemes and for them to deliver wider community benefits if designed appropriately.

One option for Fidelity would be to involve organisations like the Wildlife Trusts as intermediaries, brokering trust between farmers and private actors.

Fidelity adds that there needs to be better, more targeted support for those coming to natural capital markets who already have effective practices that enhance biodiversity. As she says, “Most grants penalise those types of people, and I think that's wrong. These contracts shouldn't necessarily be looking at adding to your biodiversity, but just keeping it there”.  

Fidelity also points out that some biodiversity fluctuates regardless of management practices: “I think that there has to be recognition that measuring biodiversity is a very up and down and sometimes out of the control of a farmer. You might get a couple of really dry years or something else might happen. If you are the farmer and need to reach targets in order to get your money, they need to be really realistic.” 

In terms of measurement, Fidelity feels that this is important to monitor change, but it is not straightforward. Her family can detect some plant and bird species by smartphone, and sometimes she uses a botanist to conduct a survey to demonstrate how her fields are changing over time.

Through regenerative grassland management, Fidelity is maintaining high levels of on-farm biodiversity.

At the same time, measuring biodiversity can be expensive, so it’s important to think about “what you're monitoring, why and what you can do to actually affect change”. Increasingly, government schemes are asking for more data which Fidelity welcomes, but asks the question, how is it being used?

She also points out that carrying out routine monitoring is particularly difficult for small family farms. “Too often we are being stretched in so many different directions, which is a feature of running a small farm. You have to do so many different things, the farming of course, but also significant paperwork. We also run educational events, sell meat direct from the farm and get involved in wider farming issues so it is too easy for monitoring to fall off the bottom of my list, because it's not crucial. It's not essential to us surviving.”

“For natural capital and monitoring schemes to really work they need to take a holistic approach, be transparent and trustworthy, and designed in a way that doesn’t place extra burdens on small farmers.”

Another challenge, she explains, can arise when farmers are expected to collect data in areas, they’re not experts in, such as botany or grasses, beetles, birdlife or fungi. Fidelity suggests that the government could embed this kind of specialist monitoring into existing public grant schemes: “If there was somebody who was paid to bring together farmers within a cluster area... or to do some of the leg work I think this would mean a lot of farmers would be quite happy to pile in behind it and offer their time to the cause. If there is a good reason to do something, that’s a big incentive.”

“For natural capital and monitoring schemes to really work,” Fidelity says, “they need to take a holistic approach, be transparent and trustworthy, and designed in a way that doesn’t place extra burdens on small farmers, while still engaging them about the importance and value of biodiversity and other public goods and the schemes themselves.”

This story was co-authored by Amy Burnett and Fergus Lyon, Middlesex University and Ella Thorold, FFCC.

More stories of hope and action from people across the UK working for a fair and sustainable future feature in our Field Guide for the Future.