Bold agri-environment choice takes land out of production

Robert Law on his farm

Robert Law © Tim Scrivener

Protecting and improving the environment is a priority for Robert Law, who has always made good use of agri-environment schemes across the 1,800ha of farmland that he oversees on the Hertfordshire/Cambridgeshire border.

It was this focus on stewardship which led to him taking the bold decision to take 17% of one farm out of production in 2021.

Over the past 30 years, the business has been involved in a continual programme of restoring existing woodlands and hedgerows, as well as planting new ones.

See also: Countryside Stewardship – key changes for 2023 agreements

Alongside this, pollinator mixes and farmland bird margins have been established, habitat for ground-nesting birds has been created and species-rich chalk grassland in a site of special scientific interest (SSSI) has been protected with careful grazing.

“Our environmental commitments are just as important as our farming ones. We have made them work together, so that they go hand in hand, and are mutually beneficial,” says Mr Law, who is hosting Cereals for the fifth time this year.

Good option at the time

Arable reversion has been used before at Thrift Farm, but Mr Law recognises that what can seem a good option at the time does change – pointing out that the two-year rotational sown legume fallow option AB15 looked very attractive before the Russian-Ukrainian conflict.

“With wheat well over £300/t, these decisions aren’t as straightforward as they were. Putting in vast tracts of AB15 at £569/ha has lost its appeal, so I’m pleased we didn’t go down that route,” he says

Depending on the site, having livestock makes it easier where there’s archaeology or an SSSI to protect, as they are keen for these areas to be grazed, he says.

As far as his farming activities are concerned, high-value crops are grown for seed and human consumption, while an 1,800 breeding ewe sheep enterprise is an integral part of the system and helps to maximise the use of every hectare.

Cattle are a more recent introduction, with a 50-strong suckler herd making good use of stewardship grass and permanent pasture.   

New Stewardship Scheme

Back in 2019, bringing a new 150ha farm into the Law Farming fold gave him the opportunity to look at how he could use a new Mid Tier Countryside Stewardship (CS) agreement to deliver environmental benefits.

Working with Katie Hilton at Cheffins, the main consideration at Heath Farm was the presence of a Scheduled Monument in a large arable field, which Historic England was keen to see protected.

As Ms Hilton explains, the decision was made to take 26ha out of arable production and put it down to grass, using the archaeological grassland option HS2, which has a payment rate of £459/ha.

“It was a major change, as it accounted for 17% of the farm. We also got a capital works grant, which meant that we could put in the fencing and water infrastructure required to put the sheep on it in the summer,” she says.

The commitment with HS2 is that a grass sward has to be maintained over the archaeological feature, while any soil disturbance and surface damage must be minimised, she explains.

“In this case, it was easy for Mr Law to take on such an ambitious plan, as he moves the sheep around the farms and uses the grazing for his dry ewes. Putting it into grass made sense,” she says.

Hedgerow restoration

Other options taken up were capital grants for hedgerow restoration and both AB8 (flower-rich margins) and AB9 (winter bird food), which pay £628/ha and £640/ha respectively.

“It was all designed in such a way that we developed a network of margins that link to the area of archaeological grassland, so there is connectivity of habitats,” she says.

The whole farm agreement started in 2021 and the options and grassland have established well, with the hedgerow restoration work also completed.

Since it started, CS payment rates have gone up by an average of 30%, in a bid to attract more farmers to sign up, with the promise of transferring into the local nature recovery level of the Environmental Land Management (ELM) scheme.

Where next with Stewardship?

At a pivotal time for stewardship schemes and with the first elements of the Environmental Land Management (ELM) scheme on the table, the financial incentives to deliver environmental benefits are starting to pale in comparison with the likely returns from arable crops.

Having signed up to his Heath Farm agreement for five years, Robert Law is uncertain about what will follow when the agreement comes to an end – likening the situation to a stalemate.

“The countryside stewardship payment rates did go up, but that was before the Ukraine invasion.

“It’s not clear that many more will sign up to these agreements while commodity markets are so volatile and agricultural policy is changing,” he says.

He accepts that he could go into the Sustainable Farming Incentive, but he isn’t likely to make that decision any time soon, with rates being low and full details still to emerge.

“I’ve got two big HLS/ELS schemes coming to an end in 2023 and 2024, which I may be offered extensions on if I don’t make any changes.

“Otherwise, I have just signed mirror agreements for other Mid Tier agreements for the next five years, although they may be terminated before that,” he says.

Making the right decisions about next week is difficult in the current high cost climate, he adds, let alone the next five years.

Katie Hilton of Cheffins reports that the majority of farms in Mid Tier schemes are opting to continue with them as they come to an end – but greater clarity and more detail on the new schemes would be helpful, especially with market conditions changing.

“Anyone who is new to stewardship isn’t being given much confidence to go in now – there seem to be new reasons not to do it,” she says.

“Taking land out of production for five years is a bold move and there could be restrictions on being able to cultivate it again once the agreement is finished.

“Make sure you have taken good advice and consulted widely.”

Cereals 2022

A number of consultants will be on hand to offer advice on stewardship schemes at the Cereals event.

This is taking place on Wednesday 8 and Thursday 9 June at Chrishall Grange, near Duxford, Cambridgshire.

More information and to book tickets 

Need a contractor?

Find one now

Explore more / Transition

This article forms part of Farmers Weekly’s Transition series, which looks at how farmers can make their businesses more financially and environmentally sustainable.

During the series we follow our group of 16 Transition Farmers through the challenges and opportunities as they seek to improve their farm businesses.

Transition is an independent editorial initiative supported by our UK-wide network of partners, who have made it possible to bring you this series.

Visit the Transition content hub to find out more.