Charlie Flindt

Official letters are not normally good news. They usually bring word that one of about 10,000 bureaucratic bodies wants to inspect/fine/measure/notify/weigh/penalise us.

Back in the autumn, though, a lengthy one arrived from Natural England (I do hope there is another government agency called Unnatural England). It was all to do with our ELS agreement.

Now, we’ve been mulling our ELS agreement for some time. When we joined up, it was what young people call a no-brainer. A respectable cheque would arrive every year if we carried on doing what we’ve been doing for ages – with one or two minor changes. We’d do less hedge trimming – no great hardship there, surely – and leave 40ha of stubble untouched over winter, which fitted perfectly with the new min/no-till strategy.

What do they say about “too good to be true”? Within weeks of selling the power harrow/drill combo, the blackgrass panic started. The only solution? Glyphosate, lots of it, followed by ploughing, and lots of it. Late February ploughing is not a good entry for spring barley on the majority of our land. My German min-till machine can cope with a lot of different soil conditions, but it certainly won’t like raw ridges of Hampshire heavy stuff.

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Meanwhile, the hedges, untouched for a couple of years, have become chaotic and unkempt, like a teenager’s beard. When the hedge trimmer does get there, the result is a ghastly display of splintered stalks and straggly brambles.

Then the Natural England letter arrived. Tucked away in the lengthy jargon was great news. “We’re pleased to tell you that you, yes, you, have this once-in-a-lifetime offer! You, the lucky recipient, can rewrite your ELS agreement! Or pull out altogether!”

Come to think of it, those weren’t the exact words; I may be getting it mixed up with the amazing guaranteed prize draw letter that came the same day.

What good timing. We were running out of things to do in the November deluge, so we sat down and played with the ELS spreadsheet. Halving the over-wintered stubble would be perfect – we can find enough lighter land to leave till the spring. But where would we find replacement ELS points?

As if sent by the Gods of Good Fortune, a second official letter arrived, marked National Trust. Again, these aren’t often the best of news, but this one certainly was. Enclosed was the lease for a rough shoot on the farm, signed, sealed and stamped.

In an era when more and more “conservation” bodies are becoming strongly anti-field sports, full marks to the trust for rediscovering that shooting is part of the countryside’s complicated fabric. Mind you, I had to check that paragraph 84/ii/2 didn’t say “all guns shall be dressed in smocks and use flintlocks”.

What would be the first step to enhancing the rough shoot potential of my farm? Strips of wild bird cover. And what would be a dead handy way of getting those pesky points to keep us up to ELS threshold? Strips of wild bird cover – aka EF2. And what would my landlord love to see around the estate? More wild birds enjoying a mix of barley, millet, triticale and mustard. Everyone’s happy.

The hedges still look terrible, though. Even that ELS money won’t cover the cost of a heavier-duty hedge trimmer – preferable one of the new rotary sawblade ones. I knew I should have returned that guaranteed prize draw letter.

* Charlie Flindt is a tenant of the National Trust, farming 380ha at Hinton Ampner in Hampshire.