Publication - Member State Evaluation |

Assessment of the adaptive capacity of Agri-Environment Schemes to respond to the impacts of climate change

The study gathers evidence on whether climate change affects agreement holders' ability to deliver Agri-Environment Scheme (AES) prescriptions and indicators of success, and whether AES is sufficiently flexible to accommodate changes to the natural environment.

  • 2014-2022
  • Environmental impacts
A rural scene in Rutland, UK with cows grazing outside the small hamlet of Whitwell close to Rutland water

The aim of this report, commissioned by DEFRA/Natural England and covering the 2018-2020 period, was to address two questions: 1) Is there evidence that climate change impacts are affecting the ability of agreement holders to deliver AES prescriptions and indicators of success? 2) Is the operation (both the design and implementation) of AES sufficiently flexible to ensure that it can accommodate changes to the natural environment as a result of climate change, without adverse impact on the desired environmental outcomes of schemes?

Regarding climate change, two different aspects were taken into consideration. First, the gradual impacts of climate change and, second, the challenges due to the severity and frequency of extreme weather events.

The methodology consisted of an assessment of a range of AES options and associated prescriptions which specify dates for required operations and where these relate to particular ecological events. In addition, an online survey of agreement holders in Cumbria, Somerset and West Anglia was undertaken to gather evidence regarding the impact of extreme weather events on the ability of agreement holders to deliver AES agreements and associated environmental outcomes. To conclude, telephone interviews with agreement holders and advisers from the study areas and elsewhere were conducted to collect more detailed information concerning the impacts of extreme weather and their experience of AES at the local level as well as links to climate data and trends.

Overall, the survey found that more than 90% of the sample had been impacted by extreme weather and for just over a third of the respondents, this was ‘severe’ on at least one occasion in the last five years. Over 70% reported experiencing extreme heat, 65% extreme wet, 68% unseasonal weather and timings (e.g. early spring or warm winter), and 57% drought, which were the top four factors.

The impact from dry and hot weather appears more widespread across the country, impacting all three case study areas, compared to wet weather, which was more localised with a range of impacts that can be severe. The occurrence of extreme weather made meeting the environmental outcomes of AES agreements more challenging as there was a perceived lack of flexibility to respond to the circumstances around the agreement holder. Those who experience the administrative processes relating to the adjustment of an AES agreement suggest it is not simple and the process for derogations or Minor Temporary Adjustment (MTA) is complex. The processes associated with the Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) have similar challenges to those of AES and are seen as complex and remote by farmers and land managers.

Furthermore, the interviews with agreement holders and advisers show they are aware of the changes in weather patterns and the impact of extreme weather both on their farm businesses and AES agreements. Extreme weather does impact the effectiveness of dates for tasks such as the cutting of rushes and grass for hay. In some years, the dates are too late, suggesting that a more flexible approach would be more beneficial for meeting environmental outcomes. Drought and heat are factors that have a widespread effect across England with specific impacts on different farming systems where flooding and extreme wet events tend to be focused more in the north and west. The type of soil and its management are key factors in reducing the impacts of extreme weather. Better soil structure and high levels of organic matter mean soils are able to retain moisture in times of heat and drought, and higher soil porosity helps reduce surface runoff. The establishment of some options can be challenging, but peer-to-peer learning, knowledge exchange and the assistance of a local adviser help alleviate these.

The occurrence of extreme weather made meeting environmental outcomes of AES agreements more challenging due to a perceived lack of flexibility in the operation of the schemes. Some farmers are asking for at least one derogation a year, while others are not requesting a derogation as the process takes too long to grant the request and is not rooted locally. Advisers and agreement holders favour the ability of local Natural England advisers to agree on minor changes to AES agreements at the local level (e.g. earlier cutting dates). The current derogation system works reasonably well for major changes in the AES agreement e.g. changing the sequencing of works and location. During and immediately after extreme events, the priorities for an AES agreement holder are the farm business (e.g. livestock) and its infrastructure (e.g. buildings). Extreme events benefit from being handled centrally to agreed criteria that are implemented locally, based on the current Farm Recovery Fund.


Countryside and Community Research Institute


English language

Assessment of the adaptive capacity of Agri-Environment Schemes to respond to the impacts of climate change

(PDF – 3.68 MB – 139 pages)