Nick Dunford has always kept the local wildlife in mind when running the 162ha (400 acres) at Vale Farm, Longparish in the Test River valley.

“Father came here in 1958 and we’ve always been keen on the environment,” says Mr Dunford. “We’ve never ploughed right to the field edges, and we have plenty of skylarks and partridges. So getting into the ELS was easy.”

But his efforts to join the Higher Level Stewardship scheme have left him disillusioned with the bureaucracy involved, concerned for the apparent lack of countryside understanding by some of those administering it, and wondering if he is simply a victim of government cuts.

Back in autumn 2005, facing low cereal prices and poor returns from his beef enterprise, he felt forced to make his sole employee redundant and look to HLS to provide an alternative source of income.

When he realised he would be unable to do all the autumn sowing on his own, he left 28ha (70 acres) fallow ready for various HLS arable options. “I liked the look of the scheme because of the wildlife we have here.”

Extra encouragement to pursue it came from his agronomist, Hampshire Arable Systems’ Steve Cook. The chalky brash once produced seed crops, but now it is all in wheat, oilseed rape and malting barley. “This land struggles to do 3t/acre of wheat,” says Mr Dunford.

A Rural Development Service visit in December 2005 confirmed that the farm could meet several key HLS targets for the Hampshire Downland area. So last spring he invited local conservation consultant Jonathan Howe to help prepare the required Farm Environmental Plan to back his application.

“Vale Farm is one of the best arable farms for wildlife that I have ever visited,” Mr Howe reported. “The populations of key indicator species such as hares, skylarks, yellowhammers and English partridge are very healthy.”

The land also harbours several key plant species, including four from DEFRA’s lists of High Value Margin Indicators, namely corn parsley, pheasants eye, rough poppy and Venus looking-glass, he noted.

The pair’s HLS proposals included arable options, restoring 300m of hedgerows with native species and taking account of two archaeological features. “It meant talking to a lot of people and getting a report on a crop circle and Roman fort we have on the farm,” says Mr Dunford.

But eventually, after much paperwork and mapping, his application went to the RDS office at Reading at the end of June. “I waited several weeks and then we had a visit from an RDS person from up north.”

The upshot was that his application, for £12,000 a year for land managed under HLS section HF20 – cultivated fallow plots or margins for arable flora – and for specific management of 3.5ha (8.5 acres) of River Test SSSI water meadow, was cut to £5800.

The proposed capital works outlay of £16,000 over three years, to cover the hedge restoration and create a pond, was slashed to £1000 a year.

Demands imposed

Given that cereals and oilseeds prices were firming, the cuts dampened Mr Dunford’s enthusiasm. But the final straws that have left his application “on ice” were certain management demands imposed, he says.

“They really do show that some people know very little about practical farming. In one conversation it was suggested we could plough less deeply over the crop circle. I was told I should reduce the depth from 12in to 8in.

“When I pointed out that on our chalk we rarely plough deeper than 6in I wasn’t believed. ‘Everyone normally ploughs at 12in,’ I was told.”

Advice to create cultivated fallow areas with a firm fine tilth between August and November could lead to erosion. They could also run counter to cross-compliance soil management requirements, he says. “I’m also being asked not to disturb fallow areas before 31 July – but every other year to lightly cultivate in spring!”

But the biggest nonsense, in the absence of livestock to graze the water meadow, was the demand to cut it to 5-15cm in November, he says. “It’s usually just too waterlogged to get on then.

“I went for the HLS knowing it’s competitive and wouldn’t have done so if I’d thought we didn’t have enough to make it worthwhile. I’m not a gambler, and we want to leave something for the next generation.

“It grates when I thought I was doing something good.”

 

HLS WOES

  • Ideal candidate farm
  • Key flora and fauna on site
  • Proposals included arable options and hedgerow restoration
  • £12,000 land management bid halved
  • £16,000 capital outlay slashed
  • Nonsensical management demands proposed

 

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