7 January 2000

Hedge maintenance top of stewardship priorities

A recent visit to West Town

Farm found Andrew Bragg

busy phoning countryside

contractors – that growing

band of people who do

rural maintenance work.

John Burns reports

ANDREW Bragg has a substantial list of work to be done this winter as part of the 10-year Countryside Stewardship Scheme he entered just over one year ago.

It includes scrub clearance, hedge planting, hedge laying, renovating earth banks, planting apple trees, pruning and sheep fencing. Some of the work will be done by his own staff and some by contractors.

Under the stewardship scheme, capital grants are available for this type of work and for the past year he qualified for a total of £4150. Though rates paid are reasonable, Mr Bragg reckons they do not cover the full costs. And, while contractors expect payment on completion of work, stewardship grants are paid many months later, adversely affecting cash flow.

Entering a stewardship agreement is not something to be done lightly, he says. The decision is a complex one, based on personal attitudes and feelings in addition to finance.

MAFFs budget is limited, so there is strong competition for acceptance into the scheme. Even though applications are time-consuming to design and make and often involve the expense of professional help, many are rejected. He was advised that successful applications must include features which would earn priority points.

Such features include being in a target area, providing new public access, maintaining unimproved (species-rich) grassland and creating habitats for rare wildlife. Mr Braggs farm is in the area where cirl buntings are being encouraged. He was able to offer a new permissive bridleway along the edge of a field to link two existing bridleways, and he agreed to educational access for schools.

Top of his own priorities was securing financial help for the major task of restoring and stock-proofing the farms many hedges.

"This is a high-maintenance farm with a lot of small fields and miles of hedges which are a key part of the landscape and provide habitat for many kinds of wildlife. I feel that having the hedges up together and stock-proof will help me to farm it more effectively, and it is a part of how an organic farm should be run."

For example, he says, grazing management will improve when fields are stock-proof. A new hedge to subdivide a 16ha (40 acre) field will improve natural control of crop pests. Hedgerow-dwelling predators cannot penetrate far enough into the crop if fields are too big. But he could not afford the full cost of that work out of his own pocket.

As well as one-off capital payments, Mr Bragg also receives payments in each of the ten years of the agreement for providing a variety of environmental and public "goods". These include restored meadowland, hedges, a renovated traditional orchard, the new bridleway, schools access, two and six-metre non-cropped field margins, and over-winter cereal stubbles on which cirl buntings can feed.

Mr Braggs total annual income from the overall scheme at current rates is £2900 (see table). Those rates are to be reviewed by MAFF in 2000, 2003, and 2006.

Since the last report, lambing has continued, a big effort has been made to reduce feed costs in the dairy herd, and machinery has been cleaned off for storage.

Mr Bragg estimates the lambing percentage is likely to be 130% at best. Although many farmers may feel disappointed with that, he considers it acceptable for completely natural, very low cost, November lambing.

The attack on dairy herd feed costs was helped by an usually fine November which meant kale could be grazed in good conditions for most of the month. &#42

FARM FACTS

&#8226 West Town Farm, Ide, near Exeter, Devon, a 65ha (160 acre) farm rented from the Church Commissioners. Farmed organically since July 1992 by Andrew Bragg.

&#8226 Plus 26ha (64 acres) of owned land three miles away, in conversion to organic; 8ha (20 acres) of organic land on an FBT, one mile away; 10ha (25 acres) of organic grasskeep five miles away.

&#8226 80-85 dairy cows, plus followers, 320,000 litres milk quota.

&#8226 75 Dorset Horn and Poll Dorset ewes lambing in November.

&#8226 10-year Countryside Stewardship project on 91ha (224 acres)

&#8226 Free-draining, mainly sloping land, some steep.

&#8226 Triticale and spring barley grown for feed.

&#8226 Three full-time staff.

Richard Brimacombe (left) and David Slocombe of contractors Brimacombe Bros, Speyton, Devon, have plenty of work waiting at West Town Farm.

Annual Countryside Stewardship Schemeincome (£)

Old lowland pasture (12ha x £85) 1020

Extra payments for fields under 3ha (2.32ha x £30) 69.60

Restored orchard (0.74ha x £250) 185

6m wide field margins (35p x 418m) 146.30

2m wide field margins (15p x 2296m) 344.40

Over-wintered cereal stubble (3.2ha x £150) 480

Permissive bridleway (30p x 199m) 59.70

Basic annual payment 150

Access for educational visits 500

Total 2955