Will Countryside Stewardship prove more attractive to arable farmers second time around? Chloe Palmer speaks to the experts to find out how it can work for the farm and wildlife.
After the success of the Entry Level Stewardship Scheme (ELS), many farmers were optimistic the new Countryside Stewardship (CS) would allow them to retain margins and other ELS options and claim a worthwhile payment.
However, when the new scheme was first launched, it did not live up to farmer expectations and application numbers were correspondingly low. Now changes have been made and Natural England is confident it will prove more popular in its second year.
Unlike the previous ELS scheme, CS is competitive and targeted, with agreements going to those who will achieve the most for their local environment.
Mike Green, Natural England’s arable specialist explains why CS is more targeted than ELS.
He says: “While ELS achieved a lot, evidence showed the scheme was paying for things farmers were doing already. Research has shown the best way to help wildlife is by providing quality habitat spread around the landscape.”
Mr Green says CS is about incentivising farmers to put the right options in the right place with the right management, so providing better value for money. He maintains the scheme must prioritise habitat for pollinators because of the significant decline in numbers of these species.
Countryside Stewardship is the agri-environment scheme available to all eligible farmers, land managers and foresters in England. It includes four main strands:
All schemes are targeted and competitive and the choice and location of options included in applications will need to address both national and local priorities.
“For many species arable land is the only potential source of help. The species cannot move elsewhere as there is no other suitable habitat.”
He explains the Farm Wildlife package has been designed to provide pollen and nectar sources and nesting places, so farmers can provide the right amount of habitat for pollinators where it is most needed.
“Some of our most effective small pollinators will only travel up to 250 metres in a single trip. So it is vital to locate blocks of up to 0.5 hectares of suitable pollen and nectar or bumblebird mixes at regular intervals across the farm so these species are adequately catered for,” he adds.
Research conducted by Agrii demonstrates it should be possible for most arable farmers to find enough marginal land to achieve the required 3 per cent minimum of options on their farms.
Mr Green says: “The payment for the option covers the cost of the seed, establishing and managing the option and the value of the crop foregone based on a yield of 8.5 tonnes/ha.
“There are parts of the farm which will never make money and here the scheme could provide more income than would be gained by farming these areas and create much needed habitat for wildlife.”
Mr Green says Mid Tier should not be thought of as a ‘free ride’ because Natural England expects farmers to grow the options as they would grow a crop, ‘to produce the best habitat possible’.
He admits many farmers were put off CS in the first year because of the short application window, incomplete guidance and a fear of inspections.
“We have listened to farmers and made a number of improvements. The application window has opened three months earlier and we have introduced new farmer-friendly guidance. Although records still need to be kept, it is now proportionate and not much more onerous than for ELS.”
Mr Green encourages all farmers to consider applying for CS this year, stressing it is the ‘right option, at the right scale, in the right place, and with the right management’ which makes for a successful scheme.
Barney Parker, an independent farm environment adviser, agrees with Mr Green’s advice but urges farmers to consider a few key questions before deciding to apply.
He says: “The value of the scheme you are applying for should balance with the inspection risk.
“Farmers with Sites of Special Scientific Interest or Scheduled Ancient Monuments on their land should be aware they will potentially be required to bring them into positive management as part of their agreement.
Independent farm environment adviser Barney Parker picks out the following three options for arable farms:
“In some cases, the Mid Tier scheme will not offer the options necessary to do this, so farmers will have to apply to the Higher Tier scheme in the first instance.”
Mr Parker’s next question to his clients is whether they are willing to comply with the new compulsory hedge cutting rules attached to Mid Tier agreements.
“The baseline hedge cutting prescription applies to all internal hedges on parcels included within the agreement, except those which need to be cut annually for safety purposes. This means farmers are only allowed to cut a maximum of half every year and I find most farmers are willing to do this.”
Mr Parker encourages farmers to apply for the Farm Wildlife package where it is practical to do so, but points out the option may be more difficult on farms not suited to spring cropping.
“Soil type plays a big part when considering placing significant areas of land into wild bird seed and nectar mixes because these options generally rely on the creation of a decent seedbed in spring.”
Where farmers are not able to commit to the threshold areas of the Farm Wildlife package options, Mr Parker recommends they establish as many of these options as they can because each option tends to score highly in its own right.
And he urges farmers to view CS as a means of tackling common issues on arable farms such as black-grass.
“The AB15 two-year-sown legume fallow is a rotational option which pays farmers to establish a temporary grass ley containing rye-grass and cocksfoot in dry conditions with legumes including red clover, vetches and trefoils. It is grown on one site for two years and then moved to another for the remaining two years of the agreement.
“Farmers can cut the sward as often as they want in the first year to control the black-grass, but in year two they may cut once in March before allowing the legumes to flower.”
However, Mr Parker is concerned two years may not be enough time to eliminate black-grass and some growers may find themselves applying for a derogation to prevent black-grass setting seed.
He also urges farmers to maintain margins next to ditches, streams and hedges in their agreement to help them comply with aquatic and arthropod buffer zones.
“Most farmers are familiar with LERAP requirements but arthropod buffer zones are now mandatory for some pesticides when used on certain crops. If CS margins are retained against hedges, ditches and watercourses this will assist farmers in meeting these obligations.”
CS applicants will learn if their application is successful in November this year and agreements will be sent out in time for the start date of January 1, 2017. Mr Parker recommends farmers keep copies of all application forms, maps and supporting evidence.
“The maps sent out with agreements are unclear, so farmers should photocopy the maps sent with their application and retain these so they know which options have been placed on individual field parcels,” he adds.
After maintaining options within his Entry Level Stewardship (ELS) scheme for more than a decade, John Hewitt was keen to retain as much of the wildlife habitat established under this scheme as possible when applying to Countryside Stewardship (CS).
He says: “My first impression of CS Mid Tier was positive because it was rather like ELS plus. We had always wanted to do more than we were doing in our ELS but did not want to apply for HLS.
“Our Mid Tier agreement allows us to keep all our existing ELS options and we have added to them.”
Mr Hewitt believes the payment rates in the scheme are fair.
He says: “The payments take into account the work involved in each option and they encourage us to do the right options for the wildlife we have on this farm rather than just choosing margins.”
During the lifetime of his ELS agreement, Mr Hewitt was involved in Natural England’s trials testing the effectiveness of skylark plots.
He says: “We trialled the skylark plots for three years and now we have large populations of skylarks here. We have retained the skylark plots [AB4] and have increased the amount of the winter bird food option [AB9].
“We are also trying 0.5ha of the autumn-sown bumblebird mix [AB16] to see if it is successful.”
Mr Hewitt is retaining all his margins and widening some to meet the four-metre minimum width, adding they will ‘make life as simple as possible for us’.
He recognises there will be more recording with the new scheme but plans to set up a dedicated file to keep records of everything he does including invoices and receipts.
Wildlife at Cotes Grange is evidently thriving as a consequence of Mr Hewitt’s sympathetic management.
He says: “We want to support the increasing numbers of farmland birds on this farm. We have grey partridge, lots of skylarks and tree sparrows are more numerous than house sparrows. Lapwings return every year and we see several barn owls hunting along the margins and rough grassland.”