Commercial livestock production and environmental schemes: are they compatible or in conflict?
Livestock farming has maintained the patchwork of pasture, meadows and moorland which makes up the treasured British landscape. Yet over the last four decades, a debate has raged over how grasslands should be managed for conservation.
Environmental schemes have been the principal mechanism for encouraging less intensive grazing management, in pursuit of conservation goals. Now many farmers and even some conservationists are claiming they have failed to achieve their objectives.
Phil Stocker, chief executive of the National Sheep Association (NSA), says: “The impact of environmental schemes on commercial grassland farms is probably the most contentious issue I have had to deal with since joining the NSA in 2011.”
Mr Stocker says it is ‘primarily an upland issue’ because it involves designated sites and areas included in the former Environmentally Sensitive Area (ESA) schemes where the drastic reductions in stocking levels were enforced in exchange for environmental payments.
Mr Stocker believes the current fixation with overgrazing stems means farmers are still criticised for practices dating back to the 1980s, when higher stocking rates were encouraged by headage payments.
He is concerned about the ‘open agenda’ of many conservation organisations to continue to remove livestock from the hills and the effect this could have on the wider sheep industry.
He says: “If we lose many of these flocks from the uplands, we are removing one of the vital links in the chain of sheep stratification. The strong maternal traits, the hardiness and the vigour of these cross-bred mules have evolved over hundreds of years.”
Andrew Critchlow, Derbyshire NFU county adviser and a hill farmer in Edale in the Peak District, has seen a significant deterioration in grassland swards on many farms in the area formerly part of the North Peak ESA, both in terms of productive capacity and in many instances, in botanical diversity.
Mr Critchlow says: “On in-bye acid grassland, there are more cases of species being lost through under-grazing than over-grazing. If a sward is grazed hard it will suppress the flowering species, but they will flower if grazing is eased off for a month during summer. However, these species will be smothered out by dead grasses if under-grazed.”
Dramatic reductions in moorland stocking rates since the 1970s have had a noticeable impact on farm businesses.
“Now there are no wether lambs finished and sold as fat direct from the moor. Before stocking rates were significantly reduced, at least a third of lambs would have been sold as fat.”
Mr Critchlow adds there are many conservationists who believe livestock can benefit from lower sheep numbers but he thinks this belies a lack of understanding about moors dominated by grass species.
He says: “There is a common misconception among some individuals in conservation organisations that if there are fewer sheep on a moor, the remaining animals will thrive. This is not the case, because the harder sheep graze grass, the more palatable it will become.”
There are serious implications for the long-term viability of moorland grazing where grazing levels are reduced dramatically, according to Mr Critchlow.
“Where areas of moorland are continually under-grazed, the situation is reached where the hardier native sheep breeds will live off vegetation, but will only just maintain condition.
“I have seen cases of graziers who have decided against turning ewes back onto the hill after tupping because they were coming off in such poor condition at lambing.”
Natural England (NE) is the Government agency charged with the responsibility for developing, delivering and monitoring agri-environment schemes in England. Steve Peel, senior grassland specialist with NE, is clear about the role of schemes.
He says: “The record for agri-environment schemes in terms of preventing further loss or predicted loss of valuable species rich grassland is very good. The schemes have been fairly successful when creating and restoring priority grassland habitats.”
Mr Peel says the Environmental Stewardship Scheme was developed with the input of farming organisations.
“Organisations including the NFU and CLA were involved from the early stages of the design of the Entry Level Scheme [ELS], Uplands Entry Level Scheme and the Higher Level Scheme [HLS].
“The prescriptions supporting each grassland option are based on research which illustrates they will deliver the desired outcomes.”
He admits there were many examples in the lowlands where species rich grasslands were often under-grazed under the old countryside stewardship and ESA schemes and this led to the adoption of a more ‘outcome-focused’ approach in HLS.
Mr Peel says: “In many HLS grassland options, it is down to the farmer to decide what level of grazing will best deliver the right sward height in accordance with the scheme outcomes.”
Restrictions on weed control in agri-environment schemes have led to many farmers highlighting the significant increase in the amount of creeping thistle in grassland. Mr Peel says there is scope under scheme rules to tackle these problem species.
“All grassland options within ELS and HLS permit implementation of the 1959 Weeds Act and farmers are allowed to prevent the spread of weeds.”
NE has also compiled research to provide farmers with the best advice.
“Research has shown grazing with a low stocking rate in late autumn and winter enables the sward to compete better in spring and can reduce the spread of creeping thistle.
Mr Peel highlights the £1.2 million budget which is spent each year on monitoring agri-environment schemes to ensure they are meeting the biodiversity objectives.
He is confident the New Environmental Land Management Scheme (NELMS) in England will allow farmers enough flexibility to continue to farm profitably after signing an agreement.
“I do not think more intensive farmers should rule out NELMS when making decisions about the future. For example, there is evidence to show many of the herb rich swards and legume and nectar mix options in the scheme will have benefits for wildlife and livestock health.”
Elizabeth Ranelagh, farm environment adviser with FWAG East, agrees there is a place for agri-environment schemes on commercial lowland grassland farms, but believes farmers need to think carefully about the detail of their agreement.
She says: “I will always look carefully at a farm on a field-by-field basis and consider what the field is like, what it is used for and how it is managed before advising a farmer to put it into a scheme.”
HLS has proved more flexible than countryside stewardship, according to Mrs Ranelagh, but she says it is important to consider how grasslands were managed historically when making decisions about management.
“We need to reflect on how our best species rich grasslands came to be as good as they are. It was because the grass was all used during the growing season. It was either grazed or cut and there was no waste.”
This practice prevented the dominance of the more aggressive species which are now commonplace in some of the under-utilised swards seen in schemes in the lowlands, she says.
Insisting on set timings and stocking numbers for grazing and cutting can also be detrimental to the diversity of grassland, Mrs Ranelagh suggests.
“Many advocate cutting late every year to allow everything to set seed but I do not encourage this. In reality, different species will flourish in different years according to the season and individual plants of the same species may flower at a slightly different time so there is no harm in cutting or grazing earlier in some years.”
Mrs Ranelagh believes farmers should be given more responsibility to achieve the desired end results.
She says: “Managing grassland to encourage species diversity is not an exact science. It is down to the farmer’s ability to manage his own land – provide him with the tools to deliver what is expected of a particular habitat and trust him.”
Several experts believe there will be no move away from detailed prescriptions in the new agri-environment schemes across the UK because of the need for them to be ‘verifiable’ and able to be easily inspected by the payment agencies.
The much criticised policy of using ‘income foregone’ as the means for calculating incentive payments should be addressed, according to Mr Stocker.
“We need to find a better way of evaluating the benefits gained from grasslands. The income foregone calculation does not recognise the real cost of managing grasslands for wildlife. Nor does it place any value on the social, cultural or biodiversity benefit of these habitats or the livestock genetics which persist in grazing animals.”
Mr Stocker believes it is still possible to achieve ‘efficient production alongside producing great countryside with plentiful wildlife’, arguing both outcomes have always been interdependent.
He urges farmers to think carefully if they are looking to renew an agri-environment agreement.
“The time is right for farmers to look carefully at the assets they have and the best way to make use of them. In some cases, this may require a re-focus on productivity and profitability and for others, an agri-environment scheme will still make good sense.”
ENVIRONMENTAL Stewardship is an agri-environment scheme which provides funding to farmers and other land managers in England to deliver effective environmental management on your land.
There are four elements to Environmental Stewardship: