AGRI-ENVIRONMENT schemes can play a big part in regaining public confidence in farming, if the response of visitors to a forward-looking Leics farm is anything to go by.
Manor Farm, a 125ha (310 acre) arable unit in the village of Owston has been in the Countryside Stewardship scheme since 1997.
Farm manager Dick Harvey estimates the bird population at the farm has more than doubled as a direct result of work done under stewardship. This, he says, is a very positive message for those who believe farmers are the enemy of the environment and can counter the misplaced public fear about farming that is at the root of farmings problems today.
"Never before has there been more misunderstanding and perplexity about food production, food safety and the environment," he told a group of over 100 visitors to Manor Farm recently. "The issue we are now faced with is one of social renegotiation."
With the unit newly-appointed as a LEAF (Linking Environment and Farming) demonstration farm, Mr Harvey relishes the opportunity he gets to promote common sense farming to interest groups, schools and the media.
"Visitors are very strongly in favour of conservation and very strongly in favour of paying the farmer to carry out conservation work," he says.
He welcomes the extra money the government is pumping into agri-environment schemes. But following recent cuts in the grants he gets for some of the work he does in the scheme, Mr Harvey warns that sufficient incentives must be offered to ensure enough farmers take part so the full benefits are realised in the coming years.
Most of the farm is in an arable rotation growing oilseed rape, wheat, winter oats and winter barley, with 10% of the arable land in set aside. All the winter barley and oats are used by the enterprises other arm, Manor Farm Feeds, which supplies coarse mixes for cattle, sheep and horse breeders.
Mr Harvey sees the 10-year Countryside Stewardship agreement as central to his farming principles and his relationship with the public. This is music to the ears of a government which is investing a lot of money and faith in what it describes as its "main incentive scheme for the wider countryside".
It plans to spend around £500m, co-financed by the EU, over the next seven years on stewardship grants for enhancing landscapes, wildlife habitats and historical features and improving public access. In 1999, there were 8614 participants on the scheme and the government projects there will be 13,000 agreements this year. It does not want to stop there and intends to allocate £126m to the scheme in 2006/07, compared with £35.5m in 2000/01.
Under the scheme, 4.2ha (10.4 acres) of potential habitat has been created in the form of 6m and 2m margins around all the arable fields at Manor Farm.
"This has allowed the ground flora from the hedgerow to extend into the field, tripling the habitat area of the farm, supporting an increase in plant and insect populations. In turn, this has increased populations of small mammals and birds," says Mr Harvey.
"We have created some very significant wildlife corridors by connecting wildlife pockets on and around the farm, which were previously isolated."
Hedges offer huge conservation benefits to wildlife, according to Mr Harvey. Over 1.8 miles of existing hedges have been laid and coppiced, and 1.5 miles of new hedges will be planted over a five-year period. He has also planted 350 hedgerow trees and woodland from 0.4ha (1 acre) of pasture.
Three new ponds have been built under the scheme, while 12ha (30 acres) of permanent pasture is carefully managed. Agrochemicals are not used and the Dexter that graze there are stocked sparingly.
"The longer herbage cover in the summer allows the population of small mammals to increase," says Mr Harvey.
Mr Harvey keeps a close watch on bird activity at Manor Farm and in March, April and May spotted 39 different species, which are logged on the farm website (www.manorfarmfeeds.co.uk).
He says the scheme is providing the framework for him to fulfil his vision of how Manor Farm should work in tandem with the environment.
"Apart from the cash, it provides the discipline to prepare a plan and follow it and the impetus for the interest and enthusiasm to carry it forward."
But he was angered when payments for field margins were cut this year. Instead of receiving £15/100m for 2m margins, he now gets £8/100m, while payments for 6m margins were reduced from £35/100m to £32/100m.
Farmers throughout the country have been upset by this change and other cuts in agri-environment scheme tiers, although this has been partially countered by some increased payments. MAFFs justification for the cuts has been, ironically, the fall in cereal prices. Under EU rules, payments have to fall in line with incomes because the farmer is foregoing less money by giving land over to wildlife.
"This seems reasonable for new entrants to the scheme, but it is wholly unreasonable for payments to be cut in existing contract agreements," says Mr Harvey.
He warns that new entrants should not consider agri-environment schemes as a way of supplementing incomes. "In general, the payments more than cover the materials cost of each capital item, but does not cover the labour cost. It will not contribute significantly to many farm incomes."
Under Countryside Stewardship, over 3km (1.9 miles) of existing hedges have been laid and coppiced at Manor Farm. Saya Harvey, who has played a big part in conservation work on the farm, tells visitors how this is done.