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LAMMA 2021

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Grant Special: Countryside Stewardship will help hedge against BPS losses

Neil Harkness and his partner farm at Hole of Lyne, a 40.4-hectare (100-acre) upland hill farm in the very north eastern Cumbrian border.

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Grant Special: Countryside Stewardship will help hedge against BPS losses

They became first generation tenant farmers 20 months ago after struggling to get a foot on the farming ladder.

It took the couple 10 years to find an affordable farm to rent.

 

Mr Harkness says: "Opportunities are very few and far between as neither of us come from family farming backgrounds getting that first foot on the ladder was the most difficult step."

 

The farm runs native breed cattle including Blue Greys and Beef Shorthorn, with all followers sold at about 16 months old at local marts and at traditional breed cattle sales.

 

They also run a flock of 80 Swaledale breeding ewes crossing with the Leicester to produce North of England Mules.


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Why did you decide to apply for a stewardship scheme on the farm?

 

The farm is 100 acres and does not generate a large turnover.

 

The farm is very wet with very peaty and boggy/rushey ground on a large part of the holding which has limited grazing, in turn, we do not carry a great deal of stock.

 

The farm does have some traditional wildflower upland hay meadows which we knew were special and would tick a few boxes with Natural England.

 

Although the farm is only 100 acres we have a diverse range of habitats across the farm. You can be checking stock in one of our upland hay meadows and over the fence to on side is upland wet heath with heather, bilberry and heath spotted orchids, while on the other could be an area of scrub with wet flushes that grade into marshy fen.

 

How important is the stewardship scheme to your business?

 

The stewardship scheme is very important to our business, especially given the Basic Payment Scheme is now being phased out over the next few years.

 

With the farm being heavily reliant on BPS and fear of the BPS being phased out when we initially took on the tenancy in 2019, it was imperative to the business to apply for a higher tier scheme. This was one of the main reasons we applied.

 

Was there anything that put you off applying either before or during application?

 

It was always a worry that you would not get accepted into the higher tier after ploughing a lot of time effort and money into the application stage when income was limited to start with.

 

We needed to rethink our cattle stocking and invest in more Beef Shorthorn in order to qualify for the native breed payments as the Blue Greys, although native to this area, are not currently recognised as a native breed.

 

We had also been using a rotational grazing system with fields been rested after grazing.

 

Natural England’s approach to grazing was very different, with set numbers of stock on certain fields and cattle only grazing on some parcels, this is a big change from what we had been doing the last previous 12 months, it did make me think if this would work and if we were doing the right thing.

 

After a few conversations with my agent and Natural England, we re-jigged a few things with stocking calendars to work better for us. I think you need to be open minded as there needs to be compromise on both sides.

Neil Harkness
Neil Harkness

What are the key objectives of the scheme, both from your perspective and for the habitats/species on the holding?

 

One of the main objectives for us and the habitats and species on the farm is to work with nature and conservation along with our day-to-day farming.

 

One of the key things is to restore the wildflower hay meadows.

 

We think this is especially important, as throughout the country these are unfortunately in mass decline.

 

They provide habitats for many species of birds, invertebrates, etc, but most importantly they supply pollen and nectar for bumble bees which we all need.

 

Also, the farm needs some much needed capital works on dry stone walls and fences that have been included in the capital works within the scheme.

 

Were there any issues with it being a tenanted holding?

 

We took over the farm on a 10-year Farm Business Tenancy.

 

By the time we had applied we had already been here a year, so we needed to get written confirmation from the landlord that he would stand by the stewardship if we were to end the tenancy prior to the scheme ending.

 

That did not pose any issues to us as our landlord was very supportive of us pursuing an application into the higher tier application.

 

Any advice for other upland farms considering a scheme?

 

If your farm is heavily reliant on the BPS it is really worth looking into the stewardship route.

 

I would recommend you use a land agent to help with your application as this saved a lot of stress as they are used to dealing with this on a regular basis and have already built-up work relationships with Natural England advisers, so can be easier to deal with and reduces errors on submission.

 

They were a useful go between for us and Natural England.

 

What are your plans or hopes for when ELM is rolled out in 2024?

 

We hope the new ELM scheme is more focused on upland farmers and that it will recognise the work that upland farmers do - we already have greater challenges than many of our lowland counterparts.

 

Our native breed cattle are not as fast growing as continental breeds and take much longer to finish.

 

It is the same with our lambs, everything takes longer to grow out here. We have challenges with weather - longer winters, less stock per acre, wet ground, more supplementary feed, etc. but our costs are the same if not more.

 

So we hope it will be at least in part more focused on the uplands and low in-put systems.

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