Denmark trip raises ELS attraction

When the government’s Entry Level Scheme was first announced it seemed to have few attractions for Ben Atkinson.

It would involve taking too much fertile land out of production, he believed.

But a random joint Rural Payments and Environment Agencies’ inspection, eventually postponed in January, persuaded him to think again.

And a recent visit to Denmark convinced him that it is the right move for Rippingale Farms, even though it will involve sacrificing crop output.

The aim is to include all 2590ha (6400 acres) the family runs, but because of mapping delays his first application, for about 10% of that, went in only at the start of the month.

“The scheme won’t make us better off financially.

But it ticks a lot of other boxes, which is our main reason for entering,” says Mr Atkinson.

“It gets round the problem of LERAPs by putting margins round all our watercourses.

That will simplify spraying and save us going back round headlands with different mixtures.”

There are plenty of dykes and ditches, but few trees or hedges on the fenland unit.

So most of his qualifying points must come from buffer strips and grassed field margins.

“Our first ELS farm doesn’t have any trees or hedges on it at all.”

Less frequent ditch maintenance is bringing some points.

But, with the farm near sea level, the main watercourses must be kept clear, stresses Mr Atkinson.

The 4m and 6m grass margins should make it easier to comply with GAEC and other cross-compliance issues by extending the windows for hedge cutting and ditch maintenance, he says.

Advice on where best to place some of the other grassed areas, for example field corners, to enhance wildlife benefits came from Faye Chester of Brown & Co, a former FWAG adviser.

The ELS over-wintered stubble option is a non-starter now that the farm has an all autumn-sown rotation.

“Going back to, say, peas for the sake of over-wintered stubbles is not on financially.”

The farm’s Soil and Nutrient Management Plans had already been drawn up with the help of Masstock agronomist Fiona Spires.

“We had also done a Crop Protection Management Plan previously, which we have tweaked a bit,” says Mr Atkinson, who is chairman of the 20-strong Millennium Farmers Club.

The club’s recent BASF-organised trip to Denmark reinforced his view that entering the ELS to be seen to be co-operating with the authorities and staying on side with the public makes sense.

“I thought we had it bad until we learned about the Danes’ nitrogen and pesticide regulations and tax.”

Danish farmers’ use of nitrogen is capped well below the UK’s RB209 levels, he notes.

So their yields and quality have suffered. “It’s nearly impossible to achieve milling quality wheat.

They are also cursed with a tax on pesticides and have a limitation on their use.”

They have few blackgrass or wild oat infestations and the country’s climate eases disease pressure, he adds.

“They have no real resistance problems and yet they still find their limit of two full doses of pesticide per crop difficult.

Such restrictions would crucify British farmers.”

The UK government must realise that not all the increased nitrate in water comes from fertiliser, says Mr Atkinson.

Levels began rising after the World War 2 ploughing-up campaign, he points out.

“We need to promote sensible use of nitrogen and support cross compliance, etc, to avoid any form of capping.

And we must make every effort to avoid a pesticides tax by continuing to support schemes like the ELS and VI.

“They are a whole lot better than the alternatives that the Danes have to put up with.”