East Anglia/Sible Hedingham: FWAG East urges farmers to plough on with stewardship schemes

Angus Crowther is set to lose about half his Entry Level Stewardship farm subsidy payments but has d

Angus Crowther is set to lose about half his Entry Level Stewardship farm subsidy payments but has decided to stay in the environmental scheme, which pays farmers to keep wildlife margins. - Credit: Su Anderson

A farming conservation body is urged farmers to plough on with their Entry Level Stewardship (ELS) schemes despite funding cuts.

FWAG helper Rebecca Inman.

FWAG helper Rebecca Inman. - Credit: Gregg Brown

Farming & Wildlife Advisory Group (FWAG) East’s pleas to farmers in East Anglia are backed by Sible Hedingham farmer Angus Crowther, who saw funding for his ELS agreement slashed by almost half.

Angus, who farms 455ha, said he felt the rug had been pulled from under him when he received a letter from Natural England informing him of the funding cut in September.

“I took over the running of the farm from my father recently and put the farm into ELS in 2012. I felt a sense of achievement for what I had managed to deliver via my ELS, especially as I had chosen mostly ‘in-field options’ - the ones proven to have the biggest benefits for wildlife and therefore strongly encouraged by Natural England and the Campaign for the Farmed Environment,” he said.

“So to discover I would now be expected to deliver all of this for almost half the payment was like having the rug pulled out from under my feet.

Jilly McNaughton

Jilly McNaughton

“My letter from Natural England explained I had three options - to accept the lower payment and continue with my agreement, to make up the shortfall by including further agri-environment options in my agreement (which for me would have meant taking even more land out of production) or coming out of my agreement altogether without penalty.”

Having entered ELS less than two years previously, Angus had worked hard to successfully establish a variety of environmental stewardship options, including several hectares of pollen and nectar and wild bird seed mix and 12-24 metre grass buffers against one of the tributaries of the River Colne.

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Thanks to the funding available through ELS Angus had been able to considerably enhance the habitat on offer to wildlife on his farm, notably pollinating insects and declining farmland birds, said FWAG East’s Jilly McNaughton.

“It has also enabled him to offer a higher level of protection for his soils and water, with the ultimate aim of contributing to improved water quality in the Colne Valley catchment,” she said.

Due to the recent ‘greening’ reform of the Common Agricultural Policy, and in order to avoid a ‘double funding’ scenario where farmers receive two subsidy payments for doing one thing, the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) has cut payment for 19 stewardship options in post-2012 ELS agreements, presenting a big dilemma for farmers like Angus.

However, he has decided to stick with the scheme as he felt he couldn’t plough up well-established areas of wild bird seed and pollen and nectar mix along with valuable grass buffers.

“There would be no satisfaction in reacting that way. I could get angry and just rip it all out, but I’m just not that type of farmer,” he said.

“These measures cost me time and money to implement and maintain and it pains me that they are no longer financially viable for me to support.

“However, I have to consider the agronomic and environmental value of them. They are delivering important things for the land which don’t show up on the balance sheet. They were also located on areas of low yielding or unworkable land which it may not be economic for me to bring back into production. It is with this in mind that I have decided to keep my ELS agreement.”

Rebecca Inman, Angus’s Farming & Wildlife Advisory Group (FWAG) adviser, said: “Up and down the country around 4,000 farmers will be affected by the double funding issue. That is around 10% of all ELS agreements. It’s a shame that the farmers who are doing the most for wildlife by taking land out of production and delivering stewardship options ‘in field’ will be affected most by these cuts.

“It would be an even greater pity to lose the goodwill towards, and interest in, environmental land management which ELS has helped to establish among farmers.”

She added: “Farmers with post-2012 ELS agreements which are affected should by now have received a letter from Natural England explaining exactly how their agreement is affected and setting out their choices. You must let Natural England know what you plan to do by November 15 or it will assume you want to continue with your agreement as it is.”

For independent advice about greening and other agri-environment issues, contact FWAG East on 01223 841507 or visit www.fwageast.org.uk