Farmers reluctant or only grudgingly willing to adopt the Voluntary Initiative to protect the environment could be encouraged to change their attitude by the government’s Entry Level Scheme.

That’s the view of a leading environmental researcher who sees plenty of overlaps between the VI and ELS.

Effectively the ELS offers financial incentives of 30/ha (12/acre) to help farmers satisfy the VI objectives of minimising the environmental impact of pesticides, explains Alastair Leake, head of the Game Conservancy Trust’s Allerton Project in Leics.

“There are several ‘win/win’ options, and with widespread ELS uptake likely the benefits to the countryside could be significant.”

There are 11 options (codes EF1-11) available in the first category – for arable land, notes Dr Leake.

They include leaving over-wintered stubbles, sowing wild bird seed, pollen and nectar mixtures and introducing skylark plots.

“They all increase food resources for farmland birds such as skylarks and grey partridges, the latter being an emblem species of the VI.

“The wild bird seed mixes and stubbles provide seeds and are especially important during winter.

Pollen and nectar mixes and skylark plots help during the breeding season by providing access points for the adults into crops which are normally too thick, and protein-rich insect food for the growing chicks.”

Buffer strips and field margins (codes EE1-8) extending beyond the 2m cross-compliance strip provide extra wildlife havens for both arable and grassland farmers.

“Managed correctly they create tussocky vegetation which is ideal as nesting habitat for birds such as grey partridges, whitethroats and yellowhammers.”

But they also bring extra protection to watercourses reducing the risk of them becoming contaminated by spray drift and fertilisers, he points out.

“Where the strips are placed at the bottom of slopes they act as soaks and filter any water running off the fields, and they are especially useful in catching eroded soil particles which may carry pesticides.”

The VI’s Crop Protection Management Plans were the forerunners of the soil, nutrient and manure management plans which carry ELS points, notes Dr Leake.

“The plans encourage farmers and spray operators to take a more integrated and rational approach to crop management.

“Many farmers have been doing CPMPs for several years – the ELS will now reward them financially.

And those who have considered them but not yet got round to completing them now have a cash incentive.”

The ELS options encouraging a range of crop types (codes EG1-5) also support the VI’s objectives of enhancing wildlife, he argues.

“Once upon a time farmers relied solely on cultural, biological and mechanical methods for controlling pests, diseases and weeds.”

The arrival of agrochemicals and improved transport systems led to increasing specialisation, with more arable crops being grown in the east and livestock dominating in the west.

“This has reduced cropping diversity with a knock-on effect on biodiversity.

“The latest options offer farmers a chance to reverse this trend by altering management practices to benefit wildlife.”

The VI has included many measures to improve water quality, says Dr Leake.

“Yet despite this, without action to tackle all potential contaminants from entering water these efforts are not translated into bright clear watercourses as we might hope.

“Action to reduce pesticides, fertilisers, livestock wastes, effluents from sewage works, factories and implementing nitrate vulnerable zones have all helped, but not stopped, soil erosion.

“The subsequent eutrophication which can occur means the benefits are not fully felt.

“ELS options EJ1 and EJ2 provide incentives for changes in practice to reduce soil erosion in two areas where soils are most vulnerable.”

andrew.blake@rbi.co.uk