SIMPLE MANAGEMENT changes can drastically improve soil structure and reduce the risk of flooding and erosion, say environmental experts.

By 2006 all farmers will have to prepare a soil management plan to claim their single farm payment, so advice needs heeding, they stress.

New environmental stewardship schemes will offer additional opportunities worth embracing, says Ben Thorne, Somerset Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group team leader.

The main culprit, soil compaction, can already be tackled by changing cropping, adding organic matter and sub-soiling, as well as introducing grass buffer strips and beetle banks in particularly vulnerable locations, says the Environment Agency”s Richard Smith.

But farmers planning to join entry level or higher level stewardship schemes will be able to earn cash for deploying further measures to tackle field-by-field erosion risks, says Mr Thorne. Cash-earning options under ELS then include restricted cropping and over-winter stubbles. More advanced choices like gate relocation, hedgerow planting and arable reversion to grassland will be available through HLS.

Chris Wilson, estate manager at 800ha (1977 acres) Dillington Farms, Ilminster, Somerset, has already implemented measures after heavy rain flooded the yard and blocked the road with mud and sugar beet. Light, sandy, sloping fields carrying high-risk crops like sugar beet, maize and potatoes, were a recipe for disaster, says FWAG”s David Cliffe.

A new soil management plan means no more sugar beet, reduced field traffic and minimum tillage to coarsen the soil structure and boost organic matter.