It is GAEC 14 on the protection of hedgerows and watercourses which dictates much of the treatment of 2m margins, but lack of clarity in the guidance is making it difficult for farmers and advisors to be sure of how to deal with problems.

“The problem is that farmers are looking for black and white rules in guidance which is very grey in some areas,” said Alastair Leake, an advisor with Momenta, the group of consultants contracted by DEFRA to provide cross compliance advice to producers.

“In addition to this, there is a wide degree of personal interpretation of the rules by inspectors, who also need better guidance.”

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Can I cut weedy margins?
Q. “I know I can’t spray, but what can I do with margins that are full of cleavers, blackgrass and brome – can I cut them to stop them seeding?”

alastair Leake 

Dr Alastair Leake

A. Dr Leake points to p27 of the Cross Compliance Handbook, (point 94) ‘it is permissible to top 2metre protective zones, but the SMR 1 on wild birds must be considered. It is recommended that if this is done, it is outside the main bird breeding season, which is 1 March to 31 July inclusive’.

Words like ‘considered’ and ‘recommended’ do not help farmers make a decision about what action to take, and on inspection they need to show that they have acted reasonably in the light of the guidance, said Dr Leake.

“If they absolutely didn’t want you to cut, then they would have said it is not permitted. The Wildlife and Countryside Act, which is what this part of the guidance is based upon, says that you must not knowingly destroy the nesting sites of protected species of birds.

“So, in theory, you could walk the margins and mark where the nesting sites are, then top, lifting the mower as you get to the nests. But finding nests is a time consuming and expert task; unrealistic for anyone to do.

“If you chose not to inspect, you would not be knowingly destroying the nests…but that is obviously not the intention of the legislation.

“We’ve been going through this for 18 months, and we still cannot give definite advice on it. The RSPB is generally negative about topping, but concedes that the advice is unclear,” said Dr Leake.

“If you have cut a margin and the cross compliance inspector wants to know why, you need to be able to support that action with a reasonable strategy…telling him it was full of rubbish won’t help.”

Cutting to control seeding of weeds such as cleavers and sterile brome, which are not good for wildlife, to encourage field margins populated with thick tussocky grasses, which provide better conditions for many species, would be a better approach, suggested Dr Leake.

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Q. Cultivation exemptions – apply now!
A.
In general, the rule is that once established, a margin may not be cultivated (p28, point 101). In theory there is greater flexibility than many might have thought on cultivation of margins, said Dr Leake.

Point 103 on the same page states “You may apply to RPA for an exemption from this requirement for management that will enhance the environment or for agronomic reasons…Examples of exemptions may include cultivation for the conservation of rare arable weeds or the control of a severe weed infestation.”

He strongly advises those who think they will need an exemption to get it sorted now, rather than close to the time when they need to cultivate, because it may take time for exemptions to be processed.

“When making the exemption application, support it with the reasons why you need to cultivate – for example, dealing with a weed infestation may enhance wildlife or bird habitat. Also, rare annual arable weeds depend on regular soil cultivation to promote germination.”

However, having fought to get exemptions of this kind included in the regime, he is disappointed that the vast majority are being refused almost immediately and this is another area that he will raise with DEFRA to argue for a more reasonable approach.

“We need to keep sight of what the prescription seeks to achieve; derogations need to be properly considered.”

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Q. How do I keep footpaths clear on margins if I’m not allowed to cut them?
A. “If you have a footpath within your 2m margin, the guidance says that you must comply with GAEC 14 (protection of hedgerows and watercourses) as far as practical,” said Dr Leake.

“The obligation to maintain the footpath comes first but at the same time you must demonstrate that you have done this sensitively in respect of the guidance. At this time of year, brambles will start coming in from hedges and across footpaths and in this and similar circumstances, you can cut margins to maintain footpath access.

“The width of footpath required to meet Cross Compliance at a field margin is 1.5m, so in many cases, the whole of the margin will need cutting if it has a footpath on it.”

As on all 2m margin land, spot spraying is also allowed to enable you to meet your obligation to take all reasonable steps to prevent the spread of common ragwort, spear thistle, creeping/field thistle, broad-leaved dock, curled dock, rhododendron, Japanese knotweed, giant hogweed and Himalayan balsam.

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Q. My 2m margin is in set-aside – does that change what I must or am allowed to do to it?
A. Yes. GAEC 14 does not apply to fields where the land is in set-aside, so you can spray these margins but watch that you observe the rules on set-aside dates, (p21 Set Aside Handbook) which recommend not spraying before April 15, unless there are special reasons for doing so, for example, to prevent something from seeding.

However, there is nothing significant which would seed before that date so observing this requirement should be fairly straightforward, said Dr Leake.

“Also, don’t forget that if you have a field in set-aside where the 2m margin has not been established, it is permissible to spray out and cultivate that margin prior to drilling your crop for 2007.”