THE ENTRY Level Stewardship Scheme will offer every farmer in England a chance to be paid for improving farmland and the environment. To qualify, farmers have to score 30 points a hectare across all the registered land on their farm. In return, they will be paid 30 a hectare.

The first step in developing an ELS plan is to establish the rationale behind it, says RSPB farm manager Darren Moorcroft.

 “Do you just want to gain the points as quickly and easily as possible or do you want to maximise the opportunity to encourage wildlife on the farm?”

Strutt & Parker consultant Matthew Ward agrees. “A key difference about the ELS, compared with previous agri-environmental schemes, is that it is geared to improving the farming environment as a whole, rather than targeting individual land features.”

The RSPB”s CD-ROM, developed with Hertfordshire University, allows farmers to plan their applications and gives advice on birds and other wildlife that ELS options will encourage.

It also takes the farmer through the ELS process from start to finish, giving a running total to show how many points the plan has gained, and how many are needed to meet ELS requirements.

 The CD calculates the points Sacrewell Lodge will need to qualify – 6670.

 It sounds a lot, but Mr Ward and Mr Moorcroft expect hedgerow management to account for about half of these.

 FARM AUDIT

The CD begins by asking farmers to enter details of their holding, and recommends farm-specific actions.

 One of these is the (compulsory) Farm Environmental Record. Farmers need to compile a list of features on the farm, from woodland and dry-stone walls to hedgerows.

“There are one or two soil erosion issues on some of the steeper fields, but they aren”t a major problem,” says FW farms” manager John Lambkin. These will be noted later on the Soil Management Plan, worth more ELS points.

 Farmers should examine options carefully, and decide if they apply to their farm. “It”s important not to try and second-guess the ELS scheme – be honest and see how many points you gain – it may be farmers gain more in this way,” says Mr Moorcroft.

The CD then turns the information from the farm audit into objectives, showing what it is possible to achieve on a specific farm.

 At every stage, the program offers “help” keys. These link directly to the relevant page of DEFRA”s ELS handbook, allowing farmers to check in detail the scheme”s prescriptions.

The disc will also flag up conservation tips and species of birds likely to be found on the farm by postcode.

 “One objective of the scheme is to reward those farmers who are already carrying out much of this environmental work. And on a holding of this size, the ELS payment is worth about 6700 – basically 1 a point,” says Mr Moorcroft.

 HEDGEROWS

 Hedgerow management is one of the simplest ways a farm can boost its score. Farmers will need to know the length of hedgerow they want to manage in 100m units. But for some features, the program includes a calculator to work out many of the conversions itself.

 Mr Moorcroft says farmers should consider what level of management control they have over their hedges. “Do you have control of both sides, or only one? What is your cutting regime?”

Farmers can split up hedgerow management, he says. “Some can be put into enhanced management; other hedges can be left out. You can enter as much or as little as you want.”

But Mr Lambkin is concerned about the prescribed hedgerow cutting – once every three years. Current farm practice is to trim every year. “Cutting every three years is a much slower job than taking a light trim every year.”

But Mr Moorcroft believes a cut every three years creates a diversity of nesting habitats, and can save on costs.

 Eventually, it is decided to put 6km of hedgerows into management on both sides and 4km into enhanced management. This puts 300 points onto the farm”s scoreboard – nearly half the target.

 BUFFER STRIPS

Buffer strips will also gain Sacrewell Lodge many ELS points. The farm already has several strips, sited next to environmental features. But claiming ELS payments on some strips could interfere with set-aside management and SFP entitlements.

Mr Lambkin decides 4m buffer strips provide the best value. “Our mower is 4m wide, so it”s the best management option, and 6m strips, while worth more points, demand different machinery and management.”

A conservation tip offered by the CD suggests sowing a mix of native grasses, says Mr Moorcroft. “A native mix will out-compete plants like brome, if natural regeneration of these strips looks like encouraging the weed burden.”

 FIELD CORNERS

Field corner management offers Mr Lambkin the opportunity to remove wetter, less productive or just plain awkward parcels of land from the cropping, and a total of 0.75ha yields another 300 ELS points.

This decision will create new habitats for birds like the corn bunting on the farm, says Mr Moorcroft. “Demonstrating positive management will help to justify future payments.”

Sowing land with a wild bird seed mixture would gain the farm another 450 points a hectare. “The farm has a commercial shoot,” says Mr Lambkin. “The keeper puts down a maize and sorghum mix. Would this count?”

But a quick check on the CD”s link to the ELS handbook shows that to qualify there needs to be three plant species, with no one of them comprising more than 70% of the mix. “A traditional mixture would be kale, one cereal and a high seed-bearing plant like quinoa,” says Mr Moorcroft.

If the farm wanted to encourage grey partridge, says Mr Moorcroft, a pollen and nectar mix would provide an insect-rich habitat for birds to rear chicks naturally.

Beetle banks present another opportunity to win ELS points. “But Sacrewell Lodge was originally designed as a dairy farm,” says Mr Lambkin. “So there are few large fields and no obvious places for beetle banks.”

SKYLARK PLOTS

 Skylark plots do not offer many additional points as they remove little land from cropping, but represent one way for farmers to encourage this declining species. Patches as small as 3m x 3m, left bare in the middle of fields by turning the drill off for a few yards and then turning it back on again, give skylarks an opportunity to get to the ground.

But Mr Lambkin has concerns about weed control. “Blackgrass and wild oats present the biggest threat. Blackgrass here isn”t resistant to herbicides yet, but is still a concern.

“Spring cropping already provides some of the features skylarks require.”

But all this still leaves Sacrewell Lodge 429 points short of the 6670 points needed. This is quickly rectified by re-visiting some of the options in the CD. Adding some extra hedgerow management (both sides) and increasing the area in pollen and nectar mix soon swells the total beyond the target by 300 points.

The program then lists the results of the ELS application, shows which birds are likely to be found on the farm and how specific ELS steps will improve conditions for each species.

LAMBKIN”S VERDICT

 “It”s a much more general and helpful tool than I anticipated. It”s quite clear and logical in its approach. The Entry Level Scheme does not look at all onerous at Sacrewell Lodge.”