CARING FOR the countryside, especially if you are paid to do so, makes sense. But there are areas where the merits of joining official schemes are debatable, and for some the idea is a non-starter.
That is the consensus of our eight regional representatives, two of whom still have no access to the likes of the ELS.
“I”m in favour of it because we are going to get paid for a lot of things we are already doing,” says Essex-based Robert Stevenson. “We are already being led that way by the supermarkets.”
Far-sighted growers should sell shares in hedge-cutter firms and buy into plant nurseries, he light-heartedly suggests. But joining the ELS will not be without expense.
“We”ll have to put in some margins, because we don”t have enough hedges alone. And we will have to get quite intimate with our field boundaries because there is a lot at stake.”
Most of the margins will be of easier-to-manage grass rather than bird cover.
In Lincs Ben Atkinson is broadly in favour, but having both fertile fenland and lighter areas with small fields bounded by hedges he has reservations.
“As an industry we need public support, and to be seen to put something back into the countryside can only be a good thing. As to whether it is viable to implement the scheme on all the land we farm, I doubt it.”
Careful financial calculations will be needed, he says.
“We have to work out how much land we must take out of production above cross-compliance and set-aside requirements and set it against the returns from cropping such an area.”
It is far from certain that the scheme will suit his more productive land. “The fens are not blessed with natural point-scoring features, and the upkeep of watercourses is essential for efficient drainage.” Traditionally, that takes place outside the ELS-defined period, he notes.
Andrew Goodman is keen to go ahead with the ELS in Worcestershire, but does not expect to be in the first tranche of applicants because of mapping delays.
“It should be fairly easy, as we have a lot of over-wintered stubbles. We already have 6m margins and can have some buffer strips in our grassland.
“We shall be trying to do things that won”t hugely impact on output. But I have had to reapply to re-register all our woodlands, so I don”t expect to hit the end of May deadline for the first payments.”
However, that may help by allowing him to incorporate his intended Higher Level Scheme application when that starts in the summer, he says.
In Devon contractor Troy Stuart admits he is only just getting to grips with the ELS. “I have to get it done now because we shall be far too busy later on.”
In theory totting up the necessary points should be straightforward. “We have a lot of small fields surrounded by hedges and our spring cropping with maize will help.”
The main snag is that 30-40% of the land he farms is rented, but not all under five-year agreements, the length of the ELS commitment. “I need to see how it all fits in with that.”
Extensive hedges and plenty of over-wintered stubbles should ease the paths of Paul Temple and Giles Blatchford, respectively, (Arable, Mar 4 and 11) into the ELS, which they welcome.