With an Organic Entry Level Scheme agreement ending in September, I have been considering future options, as will many other farmers given that so many five year agreements are coming to an end. The OELS and ELS handbooks are pretty much the same so many readers will be familiar with the process.
Some options have worked well in the five-year agreement just ending and others have been, to my eye at least, unsuccessful. Hedge and ditch management options, in field tree protection and under-sown cereals have all been positive, but any options involving sowing grass seed (margins & field corners) have been less so.
The handbook is fairly prescriptive over what mixtures can be sown, perhaps understandably it relies on low- and slow-growing grasses which will help provide better nesting sites. But these also allow ingress by creeping thistles which, without the use of chemicals to control, can be a big problem.
In addition formulating complicated grass mixtures with organic seed in short supply can be very difficult- derogations can be sought from licensing bodies but they are difficult. The last time I wanted to buy a suitable grass mixture, I left the seed merchant and certification officer to fight it out. I swear the cost in management time exceeded the value of the seed order.
One decision I have made is not to attempt to renew the Countryside Stewardship Agreement, which ends next year, into HLS. The farm has no archaeological interest, is not in a target area and is too small to be of interest. I am determined not to have a great deal of work in completing an application wasted because someone at Natural England gets out of bed on the wrong side one morning.
I can’t help feeling a little sad that my enthusiasm for environmental improvement is undiminished, but payment rates which are now too low and a very bureaucratic system make this a low value job.
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