As the third round of Countryside Stewardship funding for facilitation of farmer group-based environmental projects is announced, we examine how they are working at grass-roots level and seem set to inform agri-environment policy post-Brexit.
Having the opportunity to decide on environmental objectives rather than having them prescribed by a third party has been one of the attractions for farmers of involvement in Countryside Stewardship Facilitation Funded (CSFF) groups.
Chalke Valley farmer cluster lead farmer, Andrew Reis says: “The wonderful thing about the scheme is you can target species relevant to your environment. With environmental stewardship as it was before, it was one size fits all wherever or whatever land you were farming.”
The opportunity to make a difference to the environment on a ‘landscape’ rather than individual farm scale is also a driver for some and has its origins in a review: ‘Making Space for Nature’ chaired by Prof Sir John Lawton and published in 2010. A Natural Environment White Paper incorporating these ideas was published by Defra the following year.
This promised a competition to identify 12 Nature Improvement Areas (NIAs) to ‘enhance and reconnect nature on a significant scale’. As an advocate for a farmer-led approach to conservation, Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust CEO Teresa Dent says she was approached by a Defra official to see whether she could find a group of farmers willing to compete to create a farmer-led NIA.
Of 76 applications from organisations such as Wildlife Trusts and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, the Marlborough Downs NIA was the only successful farmer-led (out of two) bid of the 12 chosen, receiving £500,000 to achieve its objectives.
Chris Musgrave, who manages 1,620ha (4,000 acres) near Marlborough, Wilts, 750ha (1,850 acres) of which is cropped, and sheep and cattle on tack, was one of a group of farmers who led the successful farmer bid. He credits Black Sheep Countryside Management environmental consultant, Dr Jemma Batten, whom he was already working with, as being key to its success.
“We were doing it [conservation] anyway while the Government was talking about it – we just needed to do it on a larger scale.”
Following a meeting with local farmers, most were interested in pursuing the NIA bid with over 9,000ha (22,230 acres) and nearly 30 farmers involved. The application included objectives such as creating dew ponds on the chalk downland, where water is often lacking, to improve biodiversity, says Dr Batten.
“We planned ponds so that by the end of the first three years, 86 per cent of the project area was within a mile of a reliable water source which had a big impact on the wildlife. We have also planted special seed mixes, unharvested, so birds can help themselves over winter. On one of the farms involved, if you go back 10 years there were about six tree sparrows on that farm, last winter we had over 350.”
While the NIA pilot has been succeeded by CSFF groups and farmer cluster groups, some with self-funded facilitation, such achievements are helping to demonstrate how farmers contribute to environmental improvement and are looked upon favourably by politicians.
Commenting on the launch of the latest round of CSFF funding, Farming Minister George Eustice says: “The benefits of action to develop habitats and protect the environment can be magnified if applied on a landscape scale with groups of farmers working together. This facilitation fund will support partnership working to maximise the benefits of our Countryside Stewardship schemes to our farmed environment.
“Leaving the EU creates a great opportunity to design a new agriculture policy that delivers environmental outcomes more effectively and testing partnership working in this way will help provide us with experience to inform future policy.”
Mr Musgrave says: “We did everything we said we would do and more in the three years of the [NIA] project. If you want to get anything achieved on the ground you have to work with landowners and farmers.”
Andrew Reis farms 340ha (840 acres) of mostly arable land at Manor Farm, Fyfield Bavant, Wilts, letting 40ha (100 acres) of downland and water meadows to a local beef producer for grazing. Cropping includes winter wheat, spring barley, spring oats and winter oilseed rape. The farm also runs a commercial pheasant and partridge shoot.
He is lead farmer in the Chalke Valley Farmer Cluster which receives CSFF funding to support the work of facilitator Simon Smart, environmental consultant with Black Sheep Countryside Management.
Mr Reis says Peter Thompson of the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust first suggested the idea of forming a farmer cluster in the Chalke Valley. “At that point I knew nothing about it at all. All the Chalke Valley farms are doing environmental stewardship anyway. It was only in the first year we got going it became clear what the benefits are.”
The group comprises 20 farmers ranging from large commercial arable businesses to one member with 7ha (17 acres), covering about 8,000ha (20,000 acres) in total, says Mr Reis.
Mr Smart already knew many of them, having worked with them previously advising on agri-environment schemes. He held a meeting to help the group decide what they were interested in, with priorities including controlling invasive weeds by reducing phosphates in the River Ebble, which runs through the farms, and improving chalk grassland habitat by joining it up with flower-rich margins, for example.
“Not every farmer in the group will be interested in every priority and we are not expecting all farmers to do the same thing – they can pick and choose from the priorities.”
Mr Smart also worked on the plan for the group’s proposed activities to submit to Natural England, which included setting up baseline studies for species of interest to allow measurement of future success.
Group members have undergone training on species identification to help with this mission, says Mr Reis. “If we are reporting species and locations on farm we need to know what we are reporting so we can feel more confident.
“We had a very good butterfly training session from the Butterfly Conservation, Wiltshire Branch. There are two rare butterflies in the area – Duke of Burgundy and Marsh Fritillary and I hope we can encourage more on to our farms.”
Working on improving connectivity of butterfly habitat between farms is where a group approach can work particularly well, he believes.
Source: Natural England
Source: Dr Jemma Batten, Black Sheep Countryside Management