Farm environment advice is currently a focus of debate and discussion in the UK in the context of the development and establishment of new government-funded agri-environment programmes post-Brexit.
Historically, the environmental challenges and opportunities associated with farming have been framed around the tension between the objective of wildlife conservation and the profitability and operations of the farm businesses. However, since 70% of the UK’s land surface is used for agriculture, in order to tackle the climate emergency and biodiversity crisis it is essential that this tension is addressed, and in ways that deliver win-win outcomes for farmers. Farming practices designed to manage and store carbon, protect soils and water, restore biodiversity and improve air quality must become more commonplace whilst also enabling farmers and land managers to produce food and other resources in ways that are profitable and sustainable.
To achieve this requires trusted and competent advisers who can position themselves as part of the farm business team. CIEEM has been delighted to work with Plantlife and other members of the Back from the Brink partnership to produce new guidance on undertaking a farm visit, carrying out an initial assessment on site and communicating effectively with farmers or land managers. Further advice on management and monitoring of environmental interventions and dealing with cross-taxa conflicts has also been developed together with a directory of habitat and species management advice.
All of this guidance will soon be published on the Farm Wildlife website and its development was made possible by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. Farm Wildlife is a partnership of conservation and farming organisations who have come together to develop, promote and demonstrate a shared approach to conservation on farmland.
Part of this project included consulting on the role of farm environment advisers, not only with advisers themselves but also other stakeholder organisations, to identify the knowledge, understanding and skills required by the role. Well-trained, competent and confident farm environment advisers, respected for their expertise and the added value they bring to the farm business, are essential if we are to help farmers and land managers make the transition to more sustainable farming practices.
The consultation resulted in the production of a new draft Competency Framework specifically for the farm environment adviser role. The Framework identifies 3 levels of competence: Trainee, Proficient and Advanced and 16 areas of competency. The Trainee level of competence is suitable for those learning the role whilst the Proficient level is for the experienced generalist adviser. The Advanced level of competence recognises those with more in depth or specialist knowledge in one or more relevant competency areas.
This is a draft and we welcome feedback from both practitioners and other stakeholders, including those who receive or represent those who receive environmental advice. The important thing to note is the emphasis on being able to provide pragmatic advice based on a really good understanding of the farmer or land manager’s main objectives for their farming practice and their attitude towards delivering environmental outcomes. It must integrate effectively with other sources of advice that the farmer is receiving, which assumes sufficient knowledge of farming practices and farm economics to be able to predict where conflicts may occur and where compromise is needed. It must also be realistic regarding ongoing management and be aligned to local, regional and national priorities and green financing opportunities.
Over the next few months we will be working with Plantlife to consult further with organisational stakeholders but if you are involved in farm environment advice delivery we are keen to hear your views. Please send us your initial feedback using the form below and we will get in touch if we need further information. Please return forms to firstname.lastname@example.org. We will also be mapping these competencies across to the CIEEM Competency Framework for the benefit of our members.
Training and Accreditation
The development of a competency framework provides the opportunity to design a training syllabus that can provide a structured route into farm environment advice roles. The current most common approach of ‘on the job’ training is valuable but inevitably leads to a ‘narrow lens’ approach with the trainee often taking on the perspectives and prejudices of their employer or mentor. A comprehensive modular training programme that covers all areas of the competency framework could also be adapted to provide learning opportunities to fill ‘gaps’ in knowledge and understanding for practitioners coming from different backgrounds.
It also provides the potential for competence-based accreditation. An accreditation assessment process would need to be proportionate, robust and cost-effective as well as being sufficiently adaptable to reflect the types of farming practice/environment that an adviser is providing advice for and reflecting national variation in policy, legislation and approach.
In our view accreditation, at least in the initial phase, should be targeted at the Proficient competence level although it could subsequently be extended to cover Advanced. It should lead to a recognised certification, such as Accredited Farm Environment Adviser, and should lead to industry recognition through inclusion on an appropriate Register. Registration should not be for life but should be subject to a periodic ‘assessment-light’ process to ensure that the adviser is maintaining their knowledge and skills.