Studies throughout Europe have suggested that voluntary agri-environmental programmes often engender very little change in attitudes towards productivist agriculture among conventional farming communities. This study examines why this may be so, using case studies from Hessen, Germany and Aberdeenshire, Scotland. By constructing a conceptual framework based on Bourdieu's notions of capital we explore how farming activities are able to generate symbolic capital, and compare this with the symbolic value of conservation work. We find that voluntary agri-environmental work returns little symbolic capital to farmers as, by prescribing management practices and designating specific areas for agri-environmental work, such schemes fail to allow farmers to develop or demonstrate skilled role performance – thus inhibiting the development of embodied cultural capital. We conclude by suggesting that entrepreneurial production-target based agri-environmental schemes may be ultimately more effective in changing long-term behaviour.