5 April 1996

Revamped stewardship scheme has more cash

THREE new funding categories for countryside stewardship were launched this week by MAFF as it took control of the scheme from the Countryside Commission.

The revamped scheme will enable farmers to sign up agreements concerning restoration and replacement of traditional field boundaries, old meadows and pastures and the creation of wildlife corridors by uncropped margins in arable fields.

An additional £10m will be spent over the next two years, though junior farm minister Tim Boswell admitted demand would continue to outstrip grant aid from government. The existing 5312 management agreements have been transferred to MAFF.

Richard Simmonds, commission chairman, said the five-year-old scheme had safeguarded 2262 miles of hedgerow, 233 miles of traditional wall and hedge bank restoration, 1020 agreements concerning new or improved public access, 250 old orchards and just under 97,000ha (239,590 acres) of land.

Launching the revamped scheme in Oxford on Monday, Mr Boswell said stewardship would sit alongside the environmentally sensitive area scheme as one of the two core land management ventures.

Target expansion areas were also launched at county level and Mr Boswell stressed MAFF would maintain the schemes flexibility.

Conservation groups backed the schemes expansion, though there was concern over the inflexibility of the field margin rules.

David West, Oxfordshire Farming and Wildlife Advisory adviser, said current field margin agreements meant farmers could only begin autumn sowing grass/wild flower swards from Oct 1.

"We have actually been struggling to get approval for farmers to sow before Oct 1 and would strongly back any mechanism which will allow farmers to sow from Sept 1.

Marek Nowakowski, head of conservation for Willmot Pertwee, said the problem appeared to be logistical in the fact that applicants had been unable to get the go-ahead from the Oct 1.

"Most farmers are sowing at the end of August or the beginning of September, and by October 1 it is difficult for farmers to get to field margins as crops are blocking the way," he said.

Oxford farmer Andrew Cleever (centre), junior minister Tim Boswell (left) and Richard Simmonds, Countryside Commission chairman.