The future for 'green' farming after ELS

Tuesday 14 July 2015
The future for 'green' farming after ELS

Farmers’ concerns about to do when their Entry Level Stewardship (ELS) agreements come to an end prompted almost forty of them to attend a farm walk at Ivegill recently.  The walk was organised by the Cumbria co-ordinator for Campaign for the Farmed Environment (CFE), Paul Arkle and was kindly hosted by the Wilson family of Street Head Farm, Ivegill. 

The aim of the walk was to highlight what options will be open to farmers coming out of ELS agreements.  Many farmers have been involved in ELS for the past 10 years and 670 ELS agreements will end in Cumbria in 2015 so this is a big change.

The event started with a presentation in Ivegill village hall, where Paul spoke about the three main options for farmers post-ELS:

  1. Revert back to more intensive management - this might seem the most obvious course of action for farmers, rather than continuing with sympathetic, ELS-type management unfunded.  However, many ELS agreements are based on the management of less productive areas on farms in Cumbria and farmers were essentially given credit for protecting these and features such as hedgerows, trees and ditches.

  2. Continue to manage ELS areas and features sympathetically without funding - there could be significant benefits if farmers continue to manage some of their farmland voluntarily to protect its environmental value.  As well as sending out a positive message from the farming industry, this approach could stave off an increase in the level of modulation of CAP funds for the new Basic Payment Scheme (BPS).  Modulation is currently at 12% of the funding for the BPS but could rise to 15% by 2018 to pay for rural development schemes.  The requirement for farmers with more than 15 hectares of arable land to manage at least 5% of it as Ecological Focus Areas (EFAs) could also be prevented from being increased if farmers can adopt a voluntary approach to environmental management.

  3. Consider applying to join the new Countryside Stewardship (CS) scheme - the scheme has two main tiers – Higher and Mid-tier and a Capital-only tier.  Unlike the ELS, CS will be competitive and is aimed at delivering significant environmental benefits.  The Higher Tier is designed to protect key habitats, particularly designated such as Sites of Special Scientific Interest.  The Mid-Tier is designed for the wider farmed landscape.  It includes a series of packages of options aimed to support pollinators and other farm wildlife on Pastoral, Arable and Mixed farms.  Both Higher and Mid-Tier CS agreements will run for 5 years.  One-year CS agreements will provide capital funding for measures such as hedgerow restoration and farm infrastructure improvements to help improve water quality in rivers and other watercourses.

 

Following the presentation a farm walk at Street Head provided the ideal opportunity to illustrate how farmers can adapt if their ELS agreements are due to expire.  Street Head is a modern, mixed dairy, beef and sheep rearing farm.  The Wilsons farm over 420 acres in total most of which is down to improved grassland but they grow about 40 acres of winter barley and maize.

During the walk John Wilson and his son Robert pointed out areas of the farm beside the River Ive that they have managed without artificial fertiliser as part of their ELS agreement.  The land is steep and difficult to manage with modern farm machinery but provides initial grazing for bought-in, store hill sheep before they are moved on to the farm’s intensive grassland for fattening.  This is a successful system for the Wilsons and they said they intend to continue to manage the riverside land extensively even after their ELS agreement ends. 

CFE Cumbria ELS event grassland

Very low input grassland - land beside River Ive that does not receive artificial fertilisers to protect the watercourse

The Wilsons are also going to continue to manage the internal hedgerows on the farm by trimming them every other year rather than annually.  As well as reducing contractor costs on the farm, it ensures that the hedges can continue to flower and set fruit for wildlife. 

There are many other voluntary measures that farmers could do post-ELS that can be mutually beneficial to the farm business and the environment.  They can also help to meet Cross Compliance requirements for the new BPS.  Grass buffer strips can prevent fertiliser run-off into watercourses and cover crops on arable land can prevent soil erosion over the winter.  Those such as mustard can also help improve soil fertility.

CFE Cumbria ELS maize

Maize field - the flatter, more productive land at Street Head is managed intensively while steeper land beside the river is managed extensively, saving costs and protecting water quality of the river 

 

So the main take-home message from the walk was that farmers should try to retain their ELS areas and features wherever possible.  The end of the ELS scheme and loss of payments may be unfortunate but it is not all bad.  The ELS provided financial support to for farmers try environmentally sensitive management on their farms.  In many cases this has provided benefits that have been cost effective for farm businesses.  Adopting a voluntary approach to environmental farm management is at the heart of the CFE initiative and provides an ideal opportunity for the farming industry to demonstrate its strong environmental credentials and could prevent further regulation. 

If you would like further information about the CFE and voluntary measures that it promotes please contact your local CFE co-ordinator

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