Tougher rules for growers unless greening succeeds

Thousands of Entry Level Stewardship (ELS) agreements are due to finish between now and 2015. Some are coming to the end of their term, while other, more recent, agreements could be wound up early because they will fall foul of double funding.

No replacement broad-and-shallow environmental scheme will be available. The New Environmental Land Management Scheme (NELMS) does not begin until 1 January 2016 and it is already clear this will be more focused and targeted on environmental work that improves biodiversity and water quality.

How to enhance ecological focus areas

Land lying fallow

Fallow land is the EFA option with the most potential to enhance, says Mr Durham CFE co-ordinators will encourage farmers to consider how to improve field corners, margins and other areas that could otherwise be left bare.

“A simple enhancement is to add a wild bird mix or nectar mix to the basic EFA. It doesn’t have to be expensive – CFE co-ordinators can advise on low-cost seed and simple mixes targeted to the local environment.”

Pollen and nectar mixes can be easier to manage than fallow and can suppress weeds, and while bird seed can provide cover and food for game birds.

Using fine grasses and including flowering plants such as oxe-eye daisy, knapweed and trefoils on field margins can benefit pollinators and other beneficials, he says.

One point to watch is that Defra/RPA have yet to confirm minimum parcel sizes and full management prescriptions, so it is possible that very small areas may not count towards EFA, Mr Durham advises.

Buffer strips

A fine grass/flowering mix can also be used in buffer strips, another potentially valuable option with significant environmental benefits. These are likely to be placed alongside watercourses, but final definitions and full management rules are awaited.

Such mixes are suitable on most sites but should not be used on steeply sloping land next to a watercourse, where the more usual tussocky margins such as cocksfoot and timothy will be more effective.

“These enhanced mixes will also lessen the risk of weeds and disease in the adjoining crop,” says Mr Durham.

Other options

Cover crops are another option that CFE co-ordinators are likely to target. These can help rotational weed control, soil structure/organic matter and water quality, Mr Durham explains. “We are still awaiting management details, but it is likely these will be a useful addition.”

Nitrogen-fixing crops can be used for EFA and as part of crop diversification under the new greening requirements. “While these shouldn’t be the only approach to EFAs they can help improve soil structure, reduce inputs in following crops and can help with grass-weed control in the rotation,” he notes.

CFE will also encourage farmers to recognise the importance of hedgerows for farm wildlife and why sensitive management is important. “CFE can also advise on hedgerow management to help pollinator lifecycles by providing early and late pollen and nectar sources,” says Mr Durham.

While some ELS features will be maintained by growers who expect to qualify for NELMS, there is a real risk that many will be ploughed up during the next 18 months, says Sam Durham, national co-ordinator for the Campaign for the Farmed Environment (CFE).

That would be a backward step for the industry, he maintains. “A large-scale transfer of land from ELS options into production would undo years of work, and would force government to act by tightening up the greening requirements that all farmers will have to undertake to qualify for the Basic Payment Scheme.”

This is a point that many growers are in danger of overlooking, says Mr Durham. The EU expects the new greening measures, especially ecological focus areas (EFAs), to deliver where ELS has left off. However, as they stand, the measures on their own are unlikely to deliver sufficient benefit, he believes.

“Given what’s at stake, it is important for farmers to get the balance of EFAs on their land right – for the environment and for their farm business. Some EFA options, such as fallow land and buffer strips, could provide more options for enhancement, and that’s where CFE can help.

“The greening requirements in England are as simple as Defra could have made them,” says Mr Durham. “The payback is that government is trusting farmers to deliver more than the basic requirements – they need to deliver environmental enhancements as well.

“The CFE is therefore urging farmers to retain ELS features and move them into a relevant ecological focus area or to maintain them voluntarily.”

There are several ways greening requirements could be tightened if they do fall short of expectations. The range of EFAs could be restricted – certain options such as hedgerows or nitrogen-fixing crops could be removed if the government believes the rest of the system is not providing the required environmental benefits, says Mr Durham.

A national certification scheme could be introduced that would result in more detailed and onerous management prescriptions for individual EFAs.

There is also the threat that the EU could increase the EFA area to 7% if it feels member states collectively are not doing enough.

“The key message for growers is: Retain what you’ve got. Marginal land was unproductive when farmers put it into stewardship or voluntary management, and that won’t have changed. Spending money and time to try to make it productive will be ineffective.

“At the very least, farmers should retain margins, buffers, field corners and permanent pasture,” says Mr Durham. “Ministers are trusting farmers to deliver, and this is a better scenario than further regulation.”

Graham Redman, partner at farm business consultant Andersons, agrees there is a risk that significant loss of environmental features could occur in the next 18 months to two years.

“The CFE has a point. Although there is no need to panic, it is something farmers need to be aware of.”

How much will be lost remains to be seen. He estimates only about 50% of participants in existing ELS agreements – those who also have a Higher Level Stewardship or similar preceding scheme agreement – will be offered the NELMS option. “That does leave perhaps 30,000 farmers without any environmental agreement.”

However, he believes their numbers won’t be swelled significantly by farmers pulling out of more recent schemes (started on or after 1 January 2012) that have been hit by double funding.

“We believe most will only have to forfeit 5-10% of their funding, rather than the 50% that has been talked about, so ELS will still make financial sense. But we won’t really know until Natural England publishes how much the double-funding penalty for each option is going to be and how many farmers decide to change their options instead of pulling out completely.”

Nevertheless, there is a real risk that the amount of white space – areas of land not covered by environmental agreements – will rise substantially, a point that is already concerning Natural England, says Mr Redman.

“That means we have to think how useful greening is going to be compared with ELS, which has offered a range of benefits and enhanced a lot of features, albeit at a low level.

“While I’ve not heard anything to suggest Defra is going to hold the agricultural sector to ransom, I am sure it will be keen to observe what happens. It will be able to change the regulations to increase the environmental benefit of greening, for example.”

‘Showcase margins – don’t rip them up’

NFU vice-president and Essex arable farmer Guy Smith (pictured) says farmers must get behind CFE to “future-proof” farm businesses.

“We are really concerned how Nelms is shaping up. We are pushing to ensure the Universal Grant Offer is as inclusive as possible so most farmers will qualify to at least maintain their ELS features.

Guy Smith“Whatever happens, we would certainly discourage farmers from removing margins – we need to showcase them, not rip them up. We desperately need to hear from Defra what the coefficients will be, but for growers with pre-2012 ELS agreements, margins should make a significant contribution to a farm’s EFA area.”

Mr Smith believes margins make a better choice than other EFA options such hedgerows, which run the risk of delayed payments, and growing nitrogen-fixing crops, which, along with the three-crop rule, may overcook the pulse market.

He has a pre-2012 ELS agreement that includes 4-6m margins around each field. These will be put against his EFA requirement and will be retained as EFA when the scheme finishes in 2016. Any surplus will be retained voluntarily.

“Buffer zones and margins are crucial, not just for wildlife, but also for improving water quality and are an integral part of good pesticide stewardship,” he says.

“And, with the greening requirements and modulation subject to ongoing review in Whitehall and Brussels, showing we’ve kept our environmental features could help decisions to go in our favour.”