14 June 2002

Environment is the future crop

With the Curry report urging more producers to enter

into environmental schemes, Jonathan Long visits

one East Sussex unit which is encouraging wildlife,

while farming profitably

INCOME from environmental schemes and the associated wildlife benefits should be viewed as a crop and farm management adapted to suit, according to producer Martin Hole.

Production on Mr Holes 250 ha (615 acre) family run Montague Farm, Pevensey, East Sussex, is centred on three crops, prime lambs, suckled calves and wildlife, with a large part of the income coming from SSSI agreements, Countryside Stewardship and Wildlife Enhancement Schemes. Mr Hole estimates that his environmental crop accounts for up to 40% of the farms income.

Despite a stocking rate of only 0.7LU/ha (0.3LU/acre), the overall gross margin for the farm, including environmental payments, is £145/ha (£59/acre), which Mr Hole believes is above average for mixed lowland farms.

Birdlife and species rich marshes dominate the livestock management policy on the unit. No management task is undertaken without considering its impact on the flora and fauna of the farm. "We converted the farm to organic production to maximise income from lower stocking rates, it was largely a financial decision. But without this we could not have continued our work to encourage ground nesting birds and waterfowl," says Mr Hole.

His livestock breeding policy is based around providing high quality stock from minimum inputs and, as a result, no supplementary feeds are used. To achieve this, native breeds are heavily dominant in both 650 ewe flock and the 70 cow suckler herd, although Continental breeds are used as sires. "Local Romney ewes were bred for these marshes and by using Texel rams we improve the conformation of progeny, which suits our marketing."

Mr Hole aims for suckler cows to have a good amount of the local Sussex breed in their genes and uses shapely Limousin and Simmental bulls to produce fast growing stocky calves which are sold to a local finisher at eight months old.

"We believe that using local breeds, which have grazed here historically, can help maximise output from the reduced grass yield we now have. High levels of wildflowers, including Green Winged Orchids and meadow grasses mean that available grass yields are lower, large cows wouldnt do their calves well on this pasture."

Finishing cattle is not an option at Montague Farm because the requirements of the Wildlife Enhancement Scheme mean that water levels have been raised on the marshes, with up to one-third of some fields under water. This means disease risks are much higher and grazing youngstock do not have the resilience to withstand infection as well as older cattle, according to Mr Hole.

He has about 60ha (150 acres) of higher ground which ewes run on from mid-March until weaning in July. "We take ewes off the marshes in March, about a fortnight before they lamb, and bring them onto higher ground.

"This fits in with bird management, as this is when ground nesting birds, such as Lapwings, start to arrive. Ewes are weaned in July and moved to our arable reversion ground, lambs remain on better ground and are finished between July and the following March."

Sheep are essential to encouraging birdlife. Grazing by ewes over winter months means sward height is suitable for ground nesting birds and by the time chicks have hatched there is plenty of insect life about. Cattle grazing on the marshes once chicks have fledged is also paramount. "The marshes are still wet enough for cattle to cause minor poaching, so the ground is chewed up slightly, providing habitats for insects and other bird food sources."

The 60ha (150 acres) of arable reversion land was in intensive wheat production until two years ago, when Mr Hole convinced his landlord of the benefits of Countryside Stewardship. "We now draw payments in excess of £326/ha for this land. This allows us to pay an arable rent for the land and provides a much more reliable income than wheat."

Mr Hole is also convinced of the need to use environmental schemes as marketing tools and believes those involved in such schemes should be able to add value to their produce as a result of their farming practice.