An enhanced version of the Entry Level Environmental Scheme is giving an impressive increase in biodiversity with little additional disruption for the grower.
Billed as Entry Level Extra, this tweaked version of the base level environmental scheme is being studied by the Centre of Ecology and Hydrology and the Wildlife Farming Company on a commercial arable farm at Hillesden, Buckinghamshire.
The farm-scale trial was established in 2005 to compare the relative environmental benefits of cross compliance, the typical Entry Level Scheme and Entry Level Extra. And after five years of study there were large increases in wildlife across the whole farm, with much of this due to the benefits provided by the ELS Extra option package.
The secret to the success of ELS Extra is that options have been carefully selected to offer year-round habitats and food sources for a range of insects and birds. The amount of land taken out of production has also increased from the 1% usually required to achieve ELS points to 5%.
This extra 4% came, largely, from cutting off a few awkward field corners and unproductive margins, which were selected by the farm manager. Taking this land out has had no discernible impact on the farm’s overall productivity, but the environmental benefit is startling, says Richard Pywell, head of the centre’s biodiversity patterns and processes section.
“With ELS you take 1% of land out of production and you get two to three times more flowers for bees than with cross-compliance. Taking out an extra 4% in ELS extra gives a 12-fold increase.
The options chosen for the standard ELS trial were based on typical choices made by farmers in a Natural England Study and included basic 6m grass margins, a small patch planted with a simple wild bird seed mixture and cutting the hedges every two years (see panel on opposite page).
This fulfils basic ELS requirements for protection of water resources and landscape features such as hedges, but because there is little habitat diversity and a critical shortage of seed and flowers at crucial times of year, wildlife benefits are minimal, says Prof Pywell.
“The shortage of food in winter is one of the major causes of decline for our farmland birds. The options in ELS Extra gave about eight times more seed to keep them going compared with typical ELS.”
Having a diverse range of plants which provide food for insects in summer and shed their seed at different times in winter also helps provide a consistent food source throughout the year for a wide range of bird species, he says. “A mix of five to six carefully selected options seems about right.”
All of the options tested in ELS Extra are already available in the current ELS scheme, but they have been carefully selected to give the best possible environmental benefit, says Prof Pywell (see panel, right).
On top of the standard ELS scheme a number of field corners have been sown with a mix of wildflower species to provide insect food resources for birds and flowers for important pollinating insects.
Further flower resources are provided by field margins sown with other bee-friendly plants like red clover and birds foot trefoil.
Three patches of wild bird seed mixes have also been chosen to offer a range of food options to different birds, and as an insurance against pest damage and dry spring weather. One is the standard ELS mix including triticale, kale, quinoa and fodder beet and another “deluxe mix” includes fodder radish in place of the fodder beet as well as millet and buckwheat.
The third plot is planted with a “bumble-bird” mix including triticale, quinoa, fodder radish, millet, sunflower, borage and sweet clover, providing both insect food in summer and seed in winter.
Each offers food and shelter for a different spectrum of birds and insects, but is the combination of different habitats, which is most crucial, says Prof Pywell.
If implemented correctly, the environmental benefits of ELS Extra could far outstrip those offered by ELS, he says.
Some of these options are expensive to establish, particularly those including wild flowers, but these can last more than 10 years with no need to re-sow, unlike many habitats tested, says Prof Pywell.
For example, the seed mix for the enhanced field corners with four grass species and 25 wildflower species cost £310/ha to establish, but that equates to just over £30/ha a year over the life of the agreement. And because the wildflower grassland is competitive against weeds, they should stay clean, he says.
Hillesden is a conventional heavy land farm growing 1,000ha of autumn-sown crops, split between wheat, oilseed rape and beans. The experiment was set up in 2005 and the centre has worked closely with the farm manager to establish the trials and run them alongside normal farming practices.
Prof Pywell (pictured) and his team selected the mix of habitats, but farm manager Richard Franklin and owner Robin Faccenda were able to choose where and how they implemented the options.
“We had to establish extra plots with Entry Level Extra, but once we were set up it didn’t take much longer,” says Mr Franklin. “We had to take out more ground, but it wasn’t difficult to find suitable areas.”
Marek Nowakowski, managing director of the Wildlife Farming Company, assisted with many of the mixes and ensured all crops were established correctly.
This is the final year of the project, but the centre hopes to secure additional funding to continue monitoring wildlife benefits.
A sister project is also due to start at the Waddesdon estate in Buckinghamshire. This will look at the wider benefits offered by environmental scheme options, such as carbon sequestration, water protection and purification, crop pollination and weed control.
Three options compared
* Conventional arable management subject to cross compliance rules
* Hedges cut annually post harvest
* Protective zones to buffer hedgerows and watercourses
* No income
* No land out of production
* Little wildlife benefit
Entry Level Stewardship
* Aim to achieve 30 points/ha
* Based on typical uptake of ELS options
* Funded by one ELS agreement
* 1% land out of production
* EB1 – relaxed hedgerow cutting to once every two years (22 points/ha)
* EE3 – 6m margins through natural regeneration and sowing grass mixes of cocksfoot, meadow fescue, tall fescue and red fescue (400 points/ha)
* EF2 Wild birdseed mix. Single 0.25ha patch containing triticale, kale, quinoa and fodder beet. Kept for two years (450 points/ha)
* Small increase in habitats and food resources for birds and insects (two to three-fold compared to cross-compliance)
Entry Level Stewardship Extra
* Aim to achieve 30 points/ha without hedgerow management
* Funded by one ELS agreement
* 5% land out of production for a diverse range of options
* EB1: Relaxed hedgerow cutting to once every two years
* EE3: 6m grass margins (400 points/ha) by sowing five grasses plus six good-performing herbaceous plants in a 95:5 mix
* EF1: Enhanced field corners by sowing four grasses plus 25 forbs (broad-leaved herbaceous plants) in a 95:5 mix (400 points/ha)
* EF4: Pollen and nectar mixes by sowing red clover, alsike clover, birds foot trefoil, sainfoin and no grasses (450 points/ha)
* EF11: Annually cultivated margins (400 points/ha)
* EF8: 20 skylark plots
* EF2: Three 0.5ha patches of wild bird seed mixes: 1. ELS mix: Triticale, kale, quinoa and fodder beet2. ELS Delux mix: Triticale, quinoa, fodder radish, millet, buckwheat3. Bumble-bird mix: Triticale, quinoa, fodder radish, millet, sunflower, borage and sweet clover
* Increase in habitats and food for birds and insects