An HLS scheme will contribute about £32,000 a year to farm income on the Royal Agricultural College’s two farms near Cirencester. It’s nearly a year since the college embarked on the scheme and despite the dry spring, wild bird cover plots are now well established, providing a major food source for farmland birds this winter.

Will Manley, principal lecturer in environment and land management at the college, said initial consideration of Higher Level Stewardship on the college farms began through other conservation work.

“The Cotswolds Farmland Bird Project, a joint initiative run by the Cotswolds Conservation Board and Natural England, targets farms within the Cotswold Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, concentrating on six farmland bird species.

“These species include grey partridge, lapwing, turtle dove, yellow wagtail, tree sparrow and corn bunting. One of our farms at Coates is both within the AONB and also lies within a Natural England target area for three of these species.

“This clearly presented an opportunity for RAC Farms to enter into HLS and revisit and improve the existing Entry Level and Organic Entry Level schemes.”

Early discussions with Natural England staff began in September 2009, but the task was far from straightforward. One farm was managed conventionally while the other was organic; each was looked after by a different contractor; and the farms had to deliver as a college teaching resource too.

“It was absolutely paramount to us that we didn’t want to do anything overly ambitious and not within the reach of any normal commercial farm,” says Mr Manley. “So our scheme is not all about birds – resource protection for water courses is also very important and we have significant Roman archaeology to protect too.”

But the priority for HLS acceptance through the Farmland Bird Initiative was focussed on a range of options over 7% of the farm’s arable area. So individual HLS options had to be selected which provided the optimum habitats on the least productive soils. “In addition, on one farm we have added cultivated fallow plots to help promote rare arable plants,” says Mr Manley.