Farming feature: Making hay while the sun shines

Graham Downing , chair of the Country Land Business Association, with his dog, Teal.

Graham Downing , chair of the Country Land Business Association, with his dog, Teal. - Credit: Archant

Make hay while the sun shines goes the old saying, writes Graham Downing, chair of the Suffolk branch of the Country Land and Business Association.

And this year, that is exactly what Suffolk’s farmers have been able to do.

In most haymaking seasons my eyes are either permanently on the sky or checking tomorrow’s BBC forecast on the internet, and usually there is a last minute panic as the baler leaves the meadow, the dark clouds appear on the western horizon and we fight to cram the last bales into the barn before the rain arrives.

But 2013 has been different.

Not so much grass as in last year’s soggy summer, but plenty of sunshine in which to cut, turn and bale, though we have been worried at times by that nagging sea mist which is a regular fixture here on the east coast.

However, only a farmer can know the deep feeling of satisfaction mixed with relief and thankfulness at the sight of a meadow in the cool of a summer’s evening as the last load of hay leaves the field and all is quiet once more.

In what is now a predominantly arable area like Suffolk, hay meadows and permanent pastures for livestock are a specially important feature of the traditional landscape and one which is greatly valued, but in many cases those small grassy fields and the sheep or cattle they contain would not be there were it not for the various environmental stewardship schemes that have now been with us for more than 25 years.

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Take my own case for example. The meadow which we cut for hay, and which in June was a blaze of wild flowers, was only restored by ourselves 10 years ago thanks to a Countryside Stewardship scheme that made it commercially viable to take seven acres of arable farmland and put them back down to a flower-rich pasture which we can cut for hay and use as grazing for our small flock of Norfolk Horn sheep.

I think that the presence of a wild flower meadow, with ewes and lambs grazing in the shade of our big horse chestnut trees and the new hedges that we have planted, add immeasurably to the landscape, and both local people and visitors alike have told me how much they appreciate them.

But what is going to happen to our environmental stewardship schemes when the present stream of EU funding comes to an end later this year?

While a quarter of a century of support for environmentally sensitive farming has without doubt changed the mindset of farmers and made them more conscious of the need to accommodate landscape and wildlife in their management of the countryside, the brutal truth is that it costs money to farm for wildlife rather than solely to maximise crop yields.

By the end of this year, more than 13,000 Entry Level Stewardship, 400 Organic Entry Level Stewardship, 1,300 Countryside Stewardship and 1,400 Environmentally Sensitive Area schemes are due to expire, many of them managing or protecting important areas of countryside like SSSIs or priority wildlife habitats. Meanwhile the tortuous renegotiation of the Common Agricultural Policy threatens an 11.3% cut in the pot of EU money that will in future be available for funding.

Bear in mind also that environmental farming schemes are just one of the things which that money has got to support.

Forestry schemes and rural development programmes are paid for out of the same pot, so the chances are that some of the farms that are currently supporting wildlife-sensitive farming operations will not be able to do so after the end of this year.

On farms throughout East Anglia, hard commercial decisions will have to be made over how much crop-growing potential can be foregone.

If there is no money for environmental support, then with wheat at £170 a tonne, the choice over whether to maintain wide, grassy insect-rich margins around arable fields or alternatively to plough closer to the headlands and eke out a few extra metres of cereal production is a no-brainer.

Of course we all understand full well that money is tight these days, in Europe as within our own Government’s coffers, but continued support for environmental stewardship is essential.

It would be a tragedy if the work that has been achieved over all these years to make space for wildlife on our farms and to maintain the character of our traditional countryside were to be lost.