The Countryside Stewardship Facilitation Fund opens doors to new practices, increased knowledge transfer, better relationships and market opportunities. Melanie Jenkins reports...
As the fourth round of the Countryside Stewardship Facilitation Fund window closes in on October 4, the key achievements of the past three rounds have been highlighted by the Exe-Teign group, which met at Deer Park Farm, Chudleigh, Devon.
Notably, the biggest impact of the scheme for the group has been the combination of socialising with other farmers and knowledge exchange.
"Sometimes one sentence can trigger an idea,” said Andy Bragg, farmer at West Town Farm, Ide.
Currently there are 98 groups in the Countryside Stewardship Facilitation Fund, with 2,500 members farming a collective 500,000ha, according to Geoff Sansome, head of agriculture at Natural England.
“The whole idea is predominantly about knowledge exchange, learning from one another and bringing in specialists, specifically to meet the local priorities set out by Defra.
“There are some great messages about group dynamics, in terms of learning from each other locally and quite a social aspect and support network.”
According to Andy King, operational director at the Rural Payments Agency, the learning culture - as well as the sharing of ideas that are relevant and work in the locality - is a fundamental benefit that has come out of the Facilitation Fund.
Host farmer, Audrey Compton agreed: “The best thing is being able to talk something through with someone else who understands it, even if they are doing something quite different.”
In addition, the scheme had brought new vigour to her and her partner, John Whetman.
She said. “As older farmers, it has really energised us and has given us a better understanding of the industry.”
The organised talks have been another invaluable asset in helping the group to improve their own farms.
“Some of the experts have been very useful,” explained Jerry Carr, who farms near Exminster.
“We hosted the soil workshop on my farm - it was great, and I have implemented changes on the back of it.”
The Facilitation Fund has also opened market opportunities for members, which is of great value for those struggling in the current market climate.
“It has allowed for more collaborative local selling,” said Mrs Compton.
The Fund was also helping farmers get ready for the planned shift towards payment for public goods, and its ‘direction of travel’ added Mr Sansome.
Going beyond the input of the initial scheme has been the set-up of internal funding for some groups.
Unlike an individual, a group can influence an entire area, which can be attractive to bodies like water companies or local authorities, said Mr Sansome.
“Groups can influence land management on a large scale, which has to be a core part of the future. If we can get farmers to collaborate and exploit the wider natural capital asset, it is potentially another opportunity for them.”
The deadline for the fourth round of applications is Friday October 4.
Groups of farmers and landowners can apply for a share of £2.5m, which should allow for the creation of 40 new groups.
Groups need a minimum of 2,000ha, a facilitator and a core idea of how they will address some of the local priorities, as laid out by Defra.
Exe-Teign Facilitation Fund
· Led by: Members and RSPB
· Duration: January 2017 – 2021
· Members: 13 originally, covering 2,618ha. Now 45 members, covering 7,840ha
· Events: 31 held between 2017 and 2019, including talks on woodland, grassland management, birds, mammals, Countryside Stewardship workshops and soils.
· Achievements: Ideas and knowledge sharing, seed and machinery sharing, farm biodiversity surveys, habitat mapping, increased neighbour socialising to help tackle depression and isolation, talks by specialist speakers to widen information exchange.
· Environmental improvements: Hedgerow laying, increased wildflower meadows, minimum tillage, direct drilling, increased bird habitat, nest boxes erected, meadows created, rewilding, introduction of bat/ bird friendly anthelmintics and changes to livestock management, mapping rough grassland for barn owls at landscape scale, remapping meadows and woodland at landscape scale to identify wildlife access gaps.