Arable stewardship pays off in Hertfordshire

As the Campaign for the Farmed Environment gets under way, Louise Impey visits two Hertfordshire estates where stewardship schemes make sound environmental and economic sense

Being part of a larger estate has allowed Woodhall Farming Company to take an all-encompassing approach to the introduction of agri-environment schemes, admits farm manager Nigel Watchorn.

Taking land out of production on the estate, at Watton-at Stone, near Stevenage, has saved money on the use of contractors, enhanced the historic landscape, provided greater diversity of habitats, benefited the estate’s shoot and provided additional income streams, he says.

“But it’s not just about the cash. You have to be clear from the outset about what you want to achieve. These schemes take time and commitment.”

The initial Countryside Stewardship agreement entered in 1999 allowed arable reversion of land either side of the River Beane, a chalk stream which flows through the estate, creating semi-natural grassland for grazing and conservation. The costs of the fencing and gates required to make the land suitable for grazing were also covered.

Other measures introduced at the time included 6m grassland strips around arable fields and a programme of hedge maintenance and planting.

“They’ve all had their challenges,” says Mr Watchorn. “With the grassland, for example, the livestock numbers rules governing grazing can be impractical and weed control is difficult. We had to get a derogation for thistle control.”

Taking a further 160ha back in hand allowed a second scheme to be introduced, which was followed by an arable options scheme two years later.

“All three CS schemes have now moved over to Higher Level Stewardship,” he continues. “And we have Entry Level Stewardship on the outside of that too.”

The combination of these has allowed the planting and management of new areas of woodland, the restoration of historic parkland, the protection of the river and the preservation of ancient trees.

Habitat creation for birds, using wild bird mixes and wildflower margins, has helped provide sites for feeding, nesting and over-wintering. “Again, some of these can be difficult to establish, so it’s important to keep a dialogue going with Natural England,” explains Mr Watchorn.

“Provided we do our best to change things to improve the success rate, we don’t live in fear of being penalised. And there is plenty of advice available.

“There are also unexpected benefits. Having grass strips around some of our arable fields has considerably reduced rabbit grazing in crops.”

 Nigel Watchhorn


Otherwise, Mr Watchorn describes Woodhall Farming Company as a “normal” arable farm, growing wheat, barley, oilseed rape, spring beans and oats across 809ha, with himself the only full-time employee.

He makes good use of contractors at busy times, while the 2833ha estate employs someone to look after the shoot and the forestry, as well as a small maintenance team for the properties and grounds.

The estate already had a network of rights of way so increasing access has not been a problem, he notes.

He welcomes the launch of the Campaign for the Farmed Environment, but anticipates that his farm already fulfils most of the objectives. “We are always looking for ways to enhance what we’re doing and take things forward.

“A voluntary approach is right, because it allows farmers to put things in place which have a better chance of working. And not being paid to do all of them isn’t an issue – there are always other benefits to be gained.”

Sweeping changes bring stewardship success

Underperforming areas of Pilkington Farms have been put into various stewardship options over the past nine years, with considerable success and enjoyment, says farm manager Jon Birchall.

Once he’d accepted that the 750ha farm at King’s Walden, between Hitchin and Luton, didn’t have the right resources for producing very high wheat yields, Mr Birchall started to make some sweeping changes with Countryside Stewardship, ELS and HLS.

“The biggest of these are that we now have 380 acres of overwintered stubbles, much more grassland and we’ve introduced some native cattle and sheep breeds at risk.”

As a result, areas of both grassland and spring barley have increased dramatically, he says. “The spring barley is grown on chalky land with a sizeable rabbit problem, so we’ve included unharvested, fertiliser-free conservation margins to deal with them. They’re also good for birds.

“The payment for overwintered stubbles is £120/ha, while the margins contribute £440/ha. Both work well with spring crops.”

This year’s spring barley was all sold for £174/t, which Mr Birchall accepts is unlikely to be repeated in 2010. “But we grew the Canadian red wheat A C Barrie very successfully for Hovis this year, so we can increase that at the expense of spring barley, if necessary.”

Cropping at Pilkington Farms










Spring barley











Grassland now covers 263ha and has both cattle and sheep on it. “We’ve introduced some native breeds at risk – Longhorn cattle and Wiltshire Horn sheep – which attracts a payment under HLS and we’re using the extensive livestock management option too.”

Both breeds are “easy-care”, being slow-growing and very hardy, while the sheep don’t need shearing, he adds. “A spin-off from the enterprise is that we’ve started selling meat boxes direct to the public. It’s great to see people coming back for more.”

This means that the grassland now brings in three income streams, he stresses. “There’s the HLS payment, the gross margin from the livestock and the meat sales. And it’s being used to protect some historic parkland.”

Mr Birchall has also included the educational access option in his HLS agreement and became involved in Open Farm Sunday in 2009. “It was a really enjoyable occasion and gave us a great deal of job satisfaction.

“We are now renovating some traditional farm buildings, to give us some classrooms, and an old walled garden for public benefit. HLS gives us the chance to do these things.”

He is looking at another outlying 93ha farm on the Pilkington Estate, which is producing winter wheat, oats and spring beans.

“At today’s grain prices, that rotation brings us a net margin of -£6.76/ha,” he calculates. “By using some stewardship options and putting it into extensive grassland, the net margin changes to £284/ha. And that would be guaranteed for 10 years.”

The biggest hurdle encountered by Mr Birchall during this time of change is that some of his neighbours considered him to be, as he puts it, a raving lunatic. “And I did have a moment of doubt when high grain prices came back and HLS didn’t look so attractive. But things are back to normal now.”

He is always looking at ways to extend the schemes across the entire 2830ha estate but points out that it is not a blank cheque. “There’s a lot of effort required, but we are fortunate in Hertfordshire to be supported by a great team.”

The Campaign for the Farmed Environment is ideal for Pilkington Farms, he believes. “We will be renewing our ELS agreement, as its part of the whole farm approach now, and we have increased our areas of uncropped land. Best of all, it allows us to make good use of our knowledge of the estate, so that we can introduce the right things for our situation.”

The Hertfordshire Example

Both Mr Watchorn and Mr Birchall are full of praise for the Hertfordshire team that provided all the necessary help and support.

Matt Perry of Countryside Management Service offers free advice and starts by surveying the farm to produce the Farm Environment Plan. He also helps with the application process and can provide grants for small projects on behalf of Hertfordshire County Council.

His work is complemented by efforts from Graham Goodhall of the Hertfordshire Biological Records Centre and Kate Bate, county archaeologist, who contribute to the knowledge on farmland bird species and the historic environment.

Sarah Clarkson and Caroline Cavill of Natural England interpret the details of the schemes, helping to ensure that they are implemented and managed to deliver the intended environmental benefits.

“There are 56,400ha of Hertfordshire farmland in ELS and 1,500ha in HLS,” reports Sarah Clarkson. “We are keen to speak to any farmer who is not yet in one of these schemes, or people who are looking to extend and renew existing agreements. There is plenty of money available, even for those who are not in one of our two target areas.”

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