4 September 1999

Care for the margins

starts at the edges

Better environmental management wont enrich your bank balance, but it will enrich your wildlife interest according to one Cotswolds farmer. Report by Tom Allen-Stevens.

DESPITE the current fever in favour of environmental farming, with oodles of experts offering advice on how to boost the bug content of field margins, one factor has been largely ignored: whats in it for the farmer? Is it a labour of love or does it pay financially to plant a wildflower mix on your set-aside? What are the hidden costs, in terms of manage-ment and paperwork, of having grass field margins?

A visit to Guiting Manor Farms in the heart of the Cotswolds offers answers to many of these questions. For five years now, farms director Nick Bumford has made the most of the farms environmental opportunities, with the assistance of his local FWAG office. It is also a LEAF demonstration farm, although Mr Bumford is now retiring from demonstration work – "its time to let someone else have a go".

The farm has 29km of hedges and 10km of dry-stone walling which are currently being restored. They have also established 80km of arable margins, mostly 2m wide, and 24ha of set-aside sown with a grass/wildflower mix.

Experience

With the work they are doing with the woodland, pond and stream restoration, Mr Bumford now has a wealth of experience in most of the environmental projects farmers are being encouraged to take up. The results speak for themselves; you dont have to be a botanist or bird-watcher to appreciate the rich profusion of flora and fauna in the margins and restored woodland.

Contrary to advised practice, he did not start by drawing up a whole farm plan of intended works. "A whole farm plan can be too large an undertaking and you tend to lose the focus. All elements are different and need different consideration," he says. His main priority when scheduling the various works he had decided to do was to keep the farms own workforce occupied.

The farm is in the Cotswolds ESA which means he can pick up grants for capital work, like hedgerow and pond restoration – these cover about half the cost. Farmers outside ESAs can attempt to join the highly over-subscribed Countryside Stewardship Scheme (CSS), which also pays management grants for field margins.

Payments under CSS vary according to the work being done, and different parts of the country have different regional priorities. Local FWAG consultant, Jim Swanson, advises farmers to seek help from FWAG right from the start – their initial visit, including a written assessment of the farms environmental opportunities, is funded by MAFF. Thereafter a charge of £200 a day for FWAG members is payable if you want help processing your application – about £750-1,000 for a 400ha (1,000-acre) farm.

As far as paperwork is concerned, Mr Bumford finds he has few additional forms to fill in but spends more time doing his IACS forms (arable margins must be separated out from each field). Mr Swanson admits there is a lot more paperwork involved with CSS, but FWAG handles most of it if you contract them to process your application.

Its difficult to quantify what financial benefits are there for those who manage their wildlife well, alongside their arable production. There has been a reduced dependence on pesticides; no summer insecticides have been necessary for the past six years and Mr Bumford believes this is due to the abundance of beneficial insects in the 2m margins. Little else can honestly be said to boost profitability, though.

So there are no financial rewards to reap for enhancing the wildlife on your farm, even if you manage to join CSS. In fact many of the capital restoration projects can work out quite costly, especially if you are buying in labour. It is worthwhile seeking funding and advice if it is something you are intending to do anyway, however.

Although it currently puts little cash in his pocket, it is clearly evident how much Mr Bumfords eco-management of the farm has enriched its wildlife content and species diversity. He, at least, is unequivocal on what motivates him: "Im farming both the arable crops and the wildlife efficiently, but the arable side gets a bit mundane, while the wildlife provides the interest. Its very heartening to see the number of species weve encouraged here and it brings empathy with the consumer and the public in general."