The replacement scheme for entry level stewardship (ELS) and the new “greening” guidelines give growers an opportunity to tackle agronomic challenges at the same time as benefitting the environment.
Experts acknowledge that many growers are at a crossroads, as the forthcoming Nelms (New Environmental Land Management Scheme) will be more targeted than ELS and likely to be open to fewer growers. The focus under Nelms will be selective practices that bring greater biodiversity benefits than have previously been achieved, with potentially less money available for their implementation.
But Mike Green, Natural England’s national specialist for arable agronomy, predicts the move to more targeted and selective measures may allow growers to achieve more than one aim, combining agronomic and environmental targets.
“Doing something for the environment, while also solving a farm problem, could be possible with some of the new ideas that are being considered,” he says.
A solution to resistant blackgrass, for example, might be achieved by introducing a grass/flower mix into the farm arable rotation.
“Having the mix in place for one, two or three years, and managing it for both wildlife and to prevent any blackgrass seed return would help both significantly,” he explains.
It would also minimise the amount of land going into fallow, which would help to protect soil and water resources, from having a cover element and also provide valuable food and fuel resources for pollinators throughout the season.
Mr Green believes it will be possible to link weed control opportunities with wildlife enhancement, if growers adopt a longer term view of taking land out of production.
“Farmers could potentially use some of their EFA area to control blackgrass. It’s just one of a number of ideas which could be used to produce multiple benefits.”
Prof Richard Pywell of the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology points out that the agri-environment schemes are increasingly controversial because they’ve only delivered moderate environmental gains to date.
“Despite costing over £400m per year, they have largely failed to fulfil their potential in terms of biodiversity benefits,” he says.
That poor record is a shame, he notes, as when environmental measures are done correctly there can be enormous gain. “There’s a huge amount that can be done on a small amount of land taken out of production, if the training and support for farmers is provided.”
Professor Pywell has been working closely with Mr Green and Marek Nowakowski of the Wildlife Farming Company, bringing science and practical agronomy together, to assess different management options and identify practices that have the most potential benefit.
All are adamant that sustainable farming and wildlife can and should go hand in hand, with improvements in wildlife habitat possible on many farms, without loss of productive arable land.
“Not only can farmers deliver biodiversity gains, they can get better at it,” believes Mr Nowakowski. “The changeover gives them a chance to rationalise what’s been done to date and look for ways to get more from it.
This is important – if farmers do better at this, there won’t be any need to take more land out of production in the future.”
But he warns against making hasty decisions as the system changes. “Some entry level stewardship (ELS) agreements are coming to an end in summer 2015. That gives you time to think about areas that you don’t want to crop and to get advice on how to improve and enhance current environmental measures.”
He adds that many growers won’t need to find a new, full ecological focus area (EFA) of 5% to comply with greening requirements. “Most people will only be looking for an additional 2%, as they’ve already done 3%. It would be very difficult not to be able to find the extra.”
Experiments yield benefits to wildlife
Two practical large farm experiments, both funded by Defra, have been undertaken by the trio of experts. These showed that removing 5% of the lowest yielding and difficult land from cropping, to create habitats, has enormous benefits for wildlife.
In summary, they found a 12-fold increase in wildflower abundance, a 10-fold increase in bees, a nine-fold increase in seeds for farmland birds, a four-fold increase in birds and seven additional species.
“Most importantly, all this was achieved without any effect on the bottom line of the farm business. And it was done quickly,” said Mr Nowakowski.
He stresses that it’s all about choosing the appropriate habitats, locating them correctly and then managing them in the right way.