Marc Bull – Bright Seeds game crop advisor and stewardship specialist – talks about the relationship between farming and stewardship: something that is more important than ever following the new rules post-Brexit.
Can it Work?
In a word…Yes! The two can work together and should be encouraged wherever possible. The key element to getting the relationship right, in my opinion, is making sure all parties understand the options available, the management of these options, and how they can fit into farming practice. Only when these questions have been considered will the parties be able to choose the most beneficial scheme.
Case Study – Buckinghamshire
To help demonstrate the best way forward, I will share an example of a customer I have worked with for over five years, though we are only in our second year of his Countryside Stewardship (CS) Mid-Tier agreement.
My customer, Mr Sawbridge, who rents a block of land covering roughly 1300 acres from two different landlords, contacted me two years ago about setting up a large, Mid-Tier agreement for grey partridge and brown hare recovery – just next door to the modest farm shoot that I run in my spare time.
The first question we asked – and one that should always be asked – is: Will the scheme be financially beneficial and how will it work with our current farming practises? At this stage we can move on to planning for the needs of the greys and the hares. One of the main considerations for this site was lay of the land. The soil is very heavy, and Oilseed Rape (OSR) is no longer an options due to flea beetle, pigeons, slugs and the fact that the block of land is approximately 15 miles from HQ.
As well as knowing your land – it is important to know what the various CS options are, what they pay and how they need to be managed. Mr Sawbridge and I worked closely with his agent from ADAS when putting together his agreement, and what we concluded to be the most suitable options were:
- AB8 – Floristically enhanced grass plots/margins – £539/ha
- AB9 – Wild bird seed plots – £640/ha
- AB12 – Supplementary feeding – £632/t
- AB15 – Two-year legume fallow – £522/ha
- SW3 – In-field grass strips – £557/ha
- SW4 – 12-24m buffer strip £512/ha
We also discussed the possibility of introducing:
- AB1 – Nectar flower plots – £511/ha
However, we had concerns about broad-leaved weeds (BLW) and having to re-establish the plots approximately every five years. Hence, why we opted for AB8 instead, as weed burden is less of an issue and the areas will last longer and get better with age: and it pays £28/ha more.
- GS4 – legume and herb rich sward – £309/ha
Over the five-year agreement this works out as profitable as the AB15 option because you only have to establish it once and it can be grazed or silaged. However, the AB15 is better suited to this particular agreement/farm practice as Mr Sawbridge is 100% arable and needs a break crop for rotation.
- SW6 – winter cover crops – £114/ha
As mentioned, this land is very heavy and although it has grown spring barley and beans in the past, this has been through necessity not choice (adverse weather conditions), and autumn crop is the preferred choice.
With the agreements in place, farming profitability immediately increased on the rented ground, taking out poor areas that yield less and awkward corners that hinder larger machinery. Additionally, the AB15 – which is a profitable break crop – will help soil structure and further increase profitability, and this is before we see the true benefit of the higher returns on autumn cropping.
As we can see, the farming profitability boxes have all been ticked; but what about the wildlife? Well, this too is already flourishing, and I can confirm this simply through what I have seen on my last few visits.
Over the past five years, I have only known this land to successfully fledge two coveys of wild English partridge, adding up to a maximum of 18 birds in the Autumn. This autumn just gone, I counted 34 adult birds across four different coveys – and we managed to count 27 of them whilst sat out surveying at night with thermal on the January 22, 2021! This indicates great early success in the infancy of the agreement, managing to nearly double the previous autumn’s population. We’ve also – so far – had a lower winter mortality than previous years, although with birds now starting to pair up they will become more vulnerable to raptor predation.
On the same night whilst surveying, I was able to do a very basic hare count using my thermal spotter. In the five fields that I could see, I counted 47 brown hares – of which approximately 80% were sat out in AB15 areas. Another huge positive. Unfortunately, there are no base numbers for the hares to use as a comparison, but anecdotally I have noticed an obvious increase in their numbers. We’ve also noticed a clear resurgence in the roe deer population – going from zero to 12 in the last two years.
Marc Bull imparting some knowledge on the young Jack Bull
Mr Sawbridge recently had his inspection by the Rural Payments Agency (RPA) and I’m pleased to say that he passed with flying colours, without any discrepancies.
Following his successful inspection and the obvious benefits the agreements are already having, he has decided that he will work with Bright Seeds again to put in a similar Mid-Tier agreement (this may become an Environmental Land Management Scheme – ELMS) on his own farm when its current HLS agreement comes to an end.
With the way rural payment schemes are changing and evolving with the New Agriculture Bill, please don’t hesitate to contact Bright Seeds and talk with us to see how we can help your land become more profitable, and more beneficial to wildlife and the wider environment.