12 January 1996

Stewardship is OK for farm incomes

By Tony McDougal

RESEARCH into the financial viability of entering countryside stewardship schemes has shown that nine-tenths of farmers either maintain or increase their incomes.

The survey of 450 farmers – one tenth of all stewardship agreement holders – estimated that 300 new jobs were created last year through the scheme.

Smaller farms capitalising on farm tourism, surplus buildings and changes in farm enterprises made the most profits. But some large-scale arable farmers suffered losses due to reduced inputs and extensification.

Conducted by Wye College of Agriculture and the University of Reading, the survey found that the five-year-old scheme had also given a boost to traditional countryside skills, such as hedge-laying, wall-building and orchard management.

It also revealed that a quarter of the stewardship-related labour was done by outside contractors and additional hired labour.

Similar financial figures have also been recorded in an ADAS survey for the Countryside Council for Wales, which looked at various farm sectors involved in the Tîr Cymen scheme.

Since 1991, 90,000ha (222,300 acres) have been placed under stewardship. In April the stewardship scheme is to be transferred to MAFF where funding will almost double to £21m by 1998.

Terry Grant, Countryside Commission spokesman, said the Commission was concerned that there were not enough schemes for cereal farmers to convert arable land. "We feel we have a lot of livestock projects, but we want to target arable areas a bit more. We are looking at recognising the value of field margins in arable areas which we have not done before," he said.

One of the most enterprising arable stewardship schemes involves a group of 16 landowners, whose farms run along the banks of the Upper Ray, near Bicester, Oxfordshire.

They have entered stewardship agreements to re-create water meadows from mainly arable land, and are now part of the largest block of stewardship land (1500 acres) in the country.

Agricultural consultant Roy Lambourne, who farms at Foxcover Farm, Marsh Gibbon, Bicester, said it had not been easy to get all the landowners to enter the agreement. "The introduction of compulsory set-aside made things slightly difficult. A lot of the arable land on the flood plain was put into non-rotational set-aside. It made sense for farmers to take advantage of the set-aside arrangements and use the better land for arable cropping," he said.

However, the launch of the Upper Thames Tributary Environmentally Sensitive Area scheme, coupled with higher stewardship payments (£275/ha), made the landowners think again.

"Landowners are keen on environmental enhancement, but they have to safeguard their incomes," said Mr Lambourne. &#42