17 July 1998

More financial help needed to farm in an eco-friendly way

By Catherine Hughes

FARMERS vital role in delivering a diverse countryside was highlighted this week at the first farm visit organised jointly by the NFU and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.

And the message to government was clear: The will to farm in an environmentally-friendly way is there, but there is still inadequate financial incentive.

The example given was that MAFF received 48 applications last year from farmers in Wiltshire wanting to participate in the countryside stewardship scheme, but only 22 were successful.

According to host farmer, Henry Edmunds, as agricultural incomes continue to fall, wildlife is fast disappearing, mainly due to the substitution of livestock with more arable crops.

Mr Edmunds, who runs 809ha (2000 acres) at Cholderton Estate, Salisbury, Hants, demonstrated how a change in farming practice could reintroduce indigenous birds and wildlife to the farm. And he insisted that growing a habitat for wildlife, which also had the benefit of creating jobs, should be no different to growing a crop.

98 species

The estate funds all the conservation itself and boasts 98 species of herbaceous plants in its set-aside land, compared with just two or three in cropped fields. Creating the right conditions throughout the farm also means Mr Edmunds is the proud host to five barn owls, five pairs of buzzards and stone curlews on the land.

He claimed that small mixed farms were critical if the drain on wildlife was to stop – a view, he accepted, that flew in the face of recent advice from some agricultural consultants that one person should be responsible for 405ha (1000 acres) of combinable crops or 1.25m litres of milk quota.

Striving to preserve a Victorian landscape on the estate, Mr Edmunds believes that the financial squeeze on farm incomes is destroying the last bit of culture left in this country. But, during the farm visit, he demonstrated that it is possible to reintroduce wildlife by farming in a more tolerant and considerate way.

Nesting season

An example of a common practice that could be changed was cutting hedges, still covered in berries, during the nesting season.

But he pointed out that profitable farming was key to conservation, and a restructuring of support mechanisms geared towards farming systems that provide a diverse countryside needed to be put in place immediately.

&#8226 A partnership between the RSPB and farmers in the Brecks area, straddling the Norfolk-Suffolk border, has achieved record success in protecting stone curlews. A total of 137 pairs of the birds – the most since the partnership began 10 years ago – are now breeding in the area. The project is aimed at identifying and protecting nesting sites, often accidentally destroyed by heavy machinery in the past. &#42

Farmer Henry Edmunds explains the benefits of environmentally-friendly farming at the 809ha (2000 acres) he runs at Cholderton Estate, Hants.