stubble-burning-(c)REX

A group of farmers has vowed to continue its campaign for a return to stubble burning – even though the idea has been ruled out by farm minister Jim Paice.

The farmers – from Lincolnshire and Yorkshire – are calling for field trials to assess the effectiveness of stubble burning as a means of controlling blackgrass amid a decreasing armoury of chemicals against the problem weed.

Jonathan Dixon, who farms at Sunk Island, East Yorkshire, said the situation on many farms in the two counties was becoming untenable, with growers battling herbicide-resistant blackgrass that was all but impossible to control using cultivation techniques.

Neighbouring farmer Will Osgerby and Lincolnshire farmers Chris Hewis and Mark Pettitt echoed Mr Dixon’s call. “If I could burn just 10% of wheat acres each year, that would clean up my bad blackgrass patches,” said Mr Pettitt.

The four men are members of the #ClubHectare Twitter group. Mr Dixon said he was willing to host blackgrass control trials on one of his fields. “We are not talking about a wholesale return to stubble burning – but limited and controlled burning in exceptional circumstances.”

Stubble burning was effectively banned in 1993 following environmental concerns. But weed growth in exceptionally mild weather earlier this year and rising resistance to chemicals have made blackgrass a particular problem this season.

Increasing numbers of farmers in other parts of the country are also battling blackgrass. NFU combinable crops adviser Guy Gagen told visitors to this summer’s Cereals event that the union believed licensed stubble burning might be necessary on some farms.

The NFU is conducting its own investigations on behalf of members to strengthen its case. “We’re pushing the government to discuss it, but it is fair to say they look pretty horrified when we mention it at the moment,” said Mr Gagen.

But farm minister Jim Paice has all but ruled out the idea. Burning straw would destroy farmers’ hard-fought reputation as guardians of the environment, said Mr Paice in a video interview with Farmers Weekly.

There were better ways of controlling blackgrass – including cultivation. Burning fields of straw didn’t make economic sense, said Mr Paice. A return to stubble burning was off the agenda and farmers should forget the whole idea, he added.